Cell phone service providers seem to have the winning hand. They require long-term contracts, give you too many or too few minutes, and get your money whether your calls go through or not.
One way to beat the house is to add a cell phone antenna, which can strengthen your signal and your odds of carrying on a conversation in the desert or in the mountains, as well as extend your phone’s battery life. But it’s not always a sure thing. The type of antenna, its mounting and its compatibility with your phone affect its performance. Unless you shop carefully and have realistic expectations, your cell antenna could be a wild card that doesn’t pay off.
Ken Bennett, a Schneider driver from Virginia Beach, Va., bought a magnet-mount antenna and put it atop his CB radio inside the cab. “I wanted to use it in my car and in the truck,” he says. “But it doesn’t work the way I thought it would. I’ve left messages with the company to see if I can add some steel to it to see if that will help it.”
Many truckers have good experiences with cell antennas. One important factor is choosing an antenna that is the correct frequency for your phone. Most cellular carriers use either 800MHz or 1900MHz; some are dual band, meaning they use both. (Frequencies and antennas have nothing to do with a phone’s mode, which refers to the technology being used, such as digital, analog, TDMA, etc.)
To find out what frequency your phone uses, contact your service provider. If you have a dual-band phone and plan to use it on the road, a dual-band antenna ensures that both frequency ranges are available while you’re on the phone. If you have a dual-band phone and only a single-band antenna, your phone will get no reception if it changes frequencies.
Another spec important to an antenna’s success is gain, the gathering and transmitting ability of an antenna. The closer you are to a city, the lower gain number you need; the farther away, the higher number of gain.
Gain is measured in db (decibels). Manufacturers rate their antennas on different scales, the most common being dbi and dbd, depending on which test method was used to measure the amount of gain. Because dbi is about two units higher than dbd, 5dbi, for example, equals 3dbd.
“The problem is that many manufacturers don’t disclose whether their antenna is measured in dbd or dbi,” says Mike Passantino, owner of Criterion Cellular, a former truck driver who has been in the cellular business 12 years and has installed antennas in all kinds of trucks. He also says some manufacturers pad their numbers. “There is no way the average user can verify exactly what the db ratings are, so you’re stuck having to believe their numbers.”
How often are you disappointed with your cell phone reception?
C. Crane Company
R.A. Miller Industries
TERK Cellular Antenna
Some companies tell you their antenna adds a certain db or percentage of gain, such as “increases signal strength up to 15db” above the phone’s existing gain. Others give a fixed rating, such as 5dbi.
Depending on where you travel the most, you may not need the highest gain antenna. “This is not a case of more is better,” Passantino says. “You don’t want to get too much gain because it gets highly directional. It’s like the difference between shooting a .22 and a shotgun. High gain antennas are like the .22 in that they can hit a target far away, but a lower gain antenna, the shotgun, will be more precise at a closer range.” The standard is about 3dbd, he says.
No matter what kind of antenna you get, you’ll most likely need an adapter or a hands-free car kit. Not included in the price of the antenna, the adapter or car kit usually runs $10 to $150. There are hundreds of adapters, matching hundreds of kinds of phones. Some phones don’t have matching adapters, so make sure your phone has an available adapter before you try to find an antenna that goes with it.
Some companies allow you to trade in your adapter when you change phones. “They’re interchangeable to keep you up to date,” says Jerry Wren, owner of CellPhoneSolutions.com.
Make sure the antenna package includes all the connectors and mounting hardware. You might also want to measure how much cable you’ll need to mount it to make sure it comes with enough. The cable included with an antenna usually ranges from 9 feet to 15 feet. Adding to the cable length will cause you to lose 0.1db gain for each additional foot of cable and another 0.1db gain for each additional connector. But those extra few feet can make all the difference in the middle of the mounting process.
Another major factor in choosing the right antenna for your application is how permanent or temporary you want your antenna placement to be. Your options range from replacing the one on your cell phone to permanently affixing one to the roof of your truck.
ON THE PHONE. Late-night infomercials hawk stick-on booster antennas that fit under the phone’s battery and supposedly “capture the stray radiation within the phone and re-radiate the signal to improve the phone’s performance.” If you think that’s hocus-pocus, you’re not alone. “Those things are ridiculous,” says Jeff Reed, Director of Virginia Tech’s Mobile and Portable Radio Research Group. “They’re just decals with gold paint,” says Jim Wilson, who has been engineering antennas for 30 years and owns Wilson Electronics, which manufactures antennas.
IN THE TRUCK. A few antennas are made to go on the dash or on the inside of the windows. You can also use some exterior antennas inside the truck. But some experts say putting an antenna inside your truck defeats its purpose. “About 90 percent of your signal is lost trying to get inside the cab,” Wilson says.
OUTSIDE THE TRUCK. “You must get the antenna outside the cab as high as you can get it,” Wilson says. To do that, you have to have the antenna on the roof of your cab or some other prominent place such as the mirror, windshield or windows.
The main options are magnetic or clip mounts, adhesive (glass) mounts, and body or mirror mounts.
Magnetic and clip mount antennas are the most versatile, allowing you to move the antenna from your truck to your personal vehicle to inside your home. You can also take the antenna down if you are going through a truck wash or a tight spot, or if you want to protect it from theft. Magnetic mounts need to be affixed to a fairly large piece of metal, or ground plane, such as a roof, for the antenna to work at maximum levels. Clip mounts clip to the top of windows.
Glass mounts offer a permanent solution without drilling holes. But you need to consider window tinting, defroster wires and glass with metal particles because these can affect transmissions.
Glass-mount antennas also work well if you have a fiberglass truck, Passantino says. “Fiberglass is transparent to cellular signals.” Some glass-mount antennas even are designed to unclip like magnetic or clip mounts.
Panel mounts require drilling a 3/4-inch hole through part of your truck. “For truckers, body-mounted antennas on the roof typically work best,” Passantino says. Most require ground planes, and that’s different from just having a ground. “If you have a fiberglass roof, you need to add sheet metal underneath the roof; 32 inches by 32 inches works best,” Passantino says. “Aluminum does work.”
Some antennas, such as Wilson’s elevated-feed antenna, screw into the standard CB mount.
Mirror mounts are the most popular because the mirror is one of the highest points on a truck and the mirror provides a ground. But the antenna should be mounted away from high-powered CB antennas, and it should be flexible in case it hits something. “Mirror mounts tend to get smashed a lot,” Passantino says.
Allen Sady, who drives for Prime, has a Wilson dual-band, mirror-mounted antenna. “I don’t lose calls, and I don’t have the dead spots I used to in states like Wyoming, Alabama and New Mexico,” Sady says. “But you have to have the spring that goes with it. I almost didn’t buy it because it cost a little extra, but I was glad I had it the first time I hit something with the antenna.”
Since some of these antennas are permanent, think about what you will do when you sell your truck or when you change phones. Some may simply require a new adapter, but with technology constantly updating, you might have to buy a whole new antenna kit, either tearing out the old one or just leaving it there next to the new one.
What type of cell phone antenna do you use?
Virginia Tech’s Mobile and Portable Radio Research Group has done extensive research on using multiple phone antennas on the phone. “We’re seeing gains between 3db and 13db inside a building,” Reed says. “That represents a doubling of signal power.” There is more signal to be gained inside than outside, Reed says.
There is also evidence that a second antenna on the cell phone extends battery life, say Reed and Passantino. “The battery saving comes in talk time,” Reed says. “The signal level that is needed to transmit is greatly reduced when you have multiple antennas. The phone’s transmitter doesn’t have to work as hard to reach out to the cell site and doesn’t have to demand as much from your battery.”
If you’re shopping for an antenna, check return policies and warranties. Cellwest.com, for example, offers a 30-day, money-back guarantee and a one-year warranty. CellPhoneSolutions.com antennas are guaranteed for life.
Also, ask other truckers about their equipment. “I didn’t like the stick-on kind,” says Warren Hampton, who has been driving for almost 35 years. “I talked to a lot of guys, and some of them recommended Wilson, so I bought one.”
Once you decide on a model, shop for the best price on it. For example, you can buy Wilson antennas through Wilson Electronics, through other distributors such as C. Crane and at some truck stops. Take time to talk with the vendor about the details of your operation to get the antenna that best suits your needs.