Can You Hear Me Now?
SmoothTalker’s wireless and direct-connect radio-frequency amplifiers improve phone and data service, especially in fringe areas
There’s no denying that staying connected is an important factor when picking places to visit in your RV. Many times, RV parks are chosen because of Wi-Fi availability and the ability to receive a strong signal for smartphones, tablets and laptops. But in reality, searching for signal “bars” and using electronic devices in areas off the beaten path can be irritating — especially for the tech geeks out there. This becomes even more painful when trying to conduct business while on the road. SmoothTalker, a Canadian company specializing in mobile communications, offers solutions to RVers looking for independence from weak — or overloaded — Wi-Fi in campgrounds and weak cell service in fringe areas.
The company manufactures and markets Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Industry Canada approved boosters — radio frequency (RF) amplifiers — that not only improve incoming and outgoing cell signals but give users a platform for setting up a personal wireless system inside and within a certain distance outside of their RVs. What started many years ago as boosters that plugged into flip phones has evolved into sophisticated wireless equipment that improves signal strength for all cellphones, tablets and data devices. The booster operates in 800 and 1,900 megahertz (MHz) bands, which are used by the majority of cellular carriers. The user has no control of bands, and carriers commonly flip back and forth when providing service.
Historically, the 800-MHz band is more prevalent in remote areas because that’s the band carriers were originally licensed to use when the cellphone industry was launched. Consequently, there are more 800-MHz towers in remote areas because those are the ones that were put up first, but more importantly the 800-MHz band is deployed wherever possible because lower frequency signals have lower path loss and travel farther than higher frequency signals. As a general rule, the more remote the location, the higher likelihood that the only cell signal will be in the 800-MHz cellular band.
SmoothTalker’s BRM220-50 is its top-of-the-line wireless vehicle signal booster, designed to provide the highest gain permitted for mobile boosters within FCC guidelines. As of April 30, 2014, the FCC has mandated that mobile booster gain be limited to 50 decibels (dB), which still makes a huge difference in remote areas. All received and transmitted cellular signals are measured in dB, which is a whole science unto itself.
For example, the received signal strength indicator (RSSI) that relates to the number of bars on the device, depending on the available service at the time, might be minus 105 dB in a fringe area. That’s marginal for texting and voice, and forget about data service. Boost the signal using the SmoothTalker’s amplifier by 50 dB, and the RSSI will improve from 5 to 25 dB, depending on the distance from the booster antenna. This level of improvement will give the user dramatically better voice, text and data service.
Don’t get too wrapped up in RSSI and decibels; just about everyone deals only with the number of bars. In bar language for most phones, five bars is equivalent to approximately minus 75 dB; subtract
7 dB for each bar loss on the screen.
To test the effectiveness of the SmoothTalker booster, we set up the system in a 40-foot RV. Installation is relatively easy, but antenna placement is critical for optimum performance. Two antennas are connected to the booster, one inside and one outside. There are a few outside antenna choices, but for an RV, using a small whip antenna mounted to the roof makes the most sense. There are two choices here: a 2-inch stubby whip or one that is 14 inches tall. For most RV travel, the 2-inch is the most effective.
Mounting options include a magnetic base for “sticking” to metal surfaces or using an optional adjustable bracket for mounting on windows, side walls, ladders or roof racks. Routing the coaxial cable requires some preplanning, but going through the refrigerator vent usually works best, if you don’t want to drill holes in the roof or wall.
A slim inside antenna provided with the kit has an unusual shape that makes it capable of being hung on a cabinet door or taped to the wall (two-sided tape included). The key to placement is keeping the separation between the inside and outside antennas far enough so the booster’s green lights don’t flash, about 15 to 20 feet. You’ll also want to position the inside antenna close to the cell device. That’s because any wireless system is subject to free air loss. Signal to the phone is reduced as the separation between the cellular device and interior antenna increases. For example, there will be a 25- to 30-dB loss when a cellphone is at a distance of 3 feet from the inside antenna.
Also, if the inside and outside antennas are too close, the level of boost is impacted, much like feedback in a sound system when the microphone is too close to the speaker. If there’s feedback, the gain (think volume control in the speaker analogy) must be turned down; the booster does this automatically.
Performance can be upgraded by using SmoothTalker’s wideband high-gain directional antenna inside the RV, in concert with the outdoor whip antenna. This antenna can be mounted in a number of ways using the provided bracket or simply placed on a counter. This is a pretty versatile antenna because it can also be used as a directional outside antenna when parked in remote areas where the signal is very weak. In this situation, the antenna can be attached to the rear ladder or mounted on a pole at the campsite and aimed at the carrier’s tower.
Another use of the wideband antenna is inside a smaller RV. If the separation distance between the antennas is limited by RV length, the wideband antenna can be placed on a counter or table (using the bracket in a pedestal configuration) with its back to the outside antenna. The bottom line: Users can experiment with multiple combinations of antenna placements, depending on the RV and available space.
For the evaluation, the amplifier was powered by the 12-volt DC accessory adapter/plug that comes with the system. The amplifier can be hardwired to the RV’s 12-volt DC system, but the device runs on 6-volt DC, so the supplied power adapter must be used; direct wiring to 12-volt DC will fry the unit. There’s also an AC/DC power supply for connecting to standard 120-volt AC outlets.
We separated the inside and outside antennas by 16 feet. There was zero oscillation, meaning the booster did not turn its gain down during the test. Gain is indicated by the green LEDs in the booster — a solid green light confirms that the boosted signal is at maximum gain. If the green light flashes, there’s a reduction in gain. Each flash of the green LED indicates a gain reduction of 3 dB. A second, orange LED will remain solid-on if the band is functioning normally.
The tests using a smartphone showed dramatic improvement in phone signal. Of course, signal was best when the phone was closer to the inside antenna (see chart on page 72).
We also performed a data test to measure differences in download and upload speeds with and without the booster. Testing the effectiveness of the booster in a data-only session is tricky because the carrier uses multiple towers and frequency bands to provide the fastest data speeds and control traffic on its spectrum. To simulate the situation found in most remote sites with coverage from only one cell tower, a call is placed on the cellphone while the speed test is performed. The call ensured that the phone was being served by only one tower on one frequency during the test. Clearly, the results show that data speed was much faster with the use of the booster (page 72).
There are two other options for those who don’t need the wireless capabilities and want to save a few bucks. The BST220-23 booster kit uses a cradle that holds the phone or cellular device and connects to the booster. Phone-specific cradle kits are available for many popular phones, and there is a universal cradle kit that can be used for all cellphones and mobile hotspot devices.
An outside antenna is connected to the booster in the same manner as the wireless version. The cradle is then connected to the phone side of the booster, and the phone/hotspot device is placed in the cradle. The cradle is designed to plug into a 12-volt DC accessory port (cigarette lighter), providing charging capability for the phone or other device. Power for the booster comes from the same sources as its wireless counterpart.
We tested the BST220-23 with a cellphone on the 800-MHz band. Signal without the booster was recorded at minus 88 dB. Connected to the booster, gain improved to minus 61 dB. Using the connected amplifier in remote regions will greatly improve signal strength because it’s not subject to free air losses, but, of course, the wireless capability is lost. A Bluetooth headset, wired earbuds or the speaker will have to be used when making calls while the phone is in the cradle.
The least expensive option is the BST220-15, a 15-dB-gain booster that is designed for use with any data device that has an antenna port built in (laptop data cards and cellular modems). The booster is connected with a cable that plugs directly into the cellular device’s antenna port. The external antenna connection is the same as the other boosters described earlier. We did not test this booster.
Let’s face it, there are two types of users of cellular services: those who are addicted to their smartphones, tablets and computers, and those who must stay connected by necessity. There’s nothing more frustrating than traveling in areas with marginal signals, and for a small investment you can keep most of those happy signal bars on the screen.
SmoothTalker’s wireless BRM220-50 booster kits start at $399.99, the coupling BST220-23 kits start at $259.99, and the direct-connect BST220-15 kits start at $199.99.
877-726-3444 | www.smoothtalker.com