Living Off Grid – Remote Cell Service

Reader Contribution by Ed Essex

When Laurie and I first bought this property it was for recreational purposes. We weren’t too worried about phone service when we were camping but when we decided to make it our home we knew phones would be an issue. Not only do we run our business out of our home but safety services are a factor as well – fire, ambulance, and sheriff.

We knew there was a very weak signal within ¼ mile because the prior property owners would drive down the road to make calls on a cell phone. That’s fine for emergencies but we needed something better.

We live 3 miles from the nearest paved road. There are no services of any kind in this area. TV and computer are by satellite. None of the Skype (phone by computer) type services were offered in our area. That’s right, just because you have Internet service does not mean you can use it for telephone service. That was the first thing my research turned up.

Next I looked at a radio signal phone service I had read about in the Backwoods Solar handbook/catalogue. I called them to see if they knew the person they had mentioned in the book. I was given a website address but it was an old one apparently. I spoke with a Verizon Engineer who knew what I was talking about. It is a line of sight radio wave apparatus. You would have to put a pole up in the highway right of way and you would have to be able to see that pole from the house. Verizon would connect to it. It would send a radio signal to your house to a receiver that apparently you could talk into. The engineer also told me they were usually used for emergency phone services by the government. I could never locate the equipment or anyone who had done it before and finally eliminated this item as an option. Added to that I didn’t really want to go through the legal process of getting permission to put a pole in the right of way.

I found several websites that claimed to have the equipment to get you a cell signal in remote locations but after speaking with them about my actual circumstances they all admitted their products would not work.

In that research process I finally came up with the term cell phone amplifiers or cell phone signal boosters. I also learned – you can’t boost or amplify a signal that isn’t there. One thing led to another and I finally contacted a company in Utah called Wilson Electronics. Oddly enough the person that answered the phone used to manage a Radio Shack 15 miles from here and knowing the general cell service areas etc made a big difference because their biggest concerns are people who want to “pull a signal out of thin air” and that simply isn’t possible. Because this person knew our area he was hopeful we “might” get a signal.

I looked at all the online cell service “coverage maps”. Not helpful. According to them my area could not receive a signal. Because I knew there was a signal about one quater mile away and because the Wilson customer service guy was pretty positive I could get a signal I decided to try it. I bought a trucker antenna and a small 12volt vehicle amplifier that plugged into the Polaris or truck cigarette lighter. The only other condition was that I needed a phone with a little female receptacle that I could plug into the amplifier direct. They had wireless amplifiers but the customer rep assured me that I would do better with hard wire. Luckily my phone had such a plug in. Not all of them do.

I was able to receive 1 1/2 to 2 bars with this setup. I would stand outside holding the antenna in one hand and the phone in another and make calls – most of the time. That was about 5 years ago. Since then they have improved the equipment substantially

In my current home setup I have an outdoor antenna that has to be 30′ high. It is connected by coaxial cable to my original amplifier and another larger amp. Those are connected by coaxial cable to an indoor antenna in the house that sends a wireless signal to our cell phones. I get up to 5 bars. If you walk outside the house our phones get ZERO bars.

So how do you KNOW a cell phone signal booster will work for you? There is a trick I will share with you but you have to try this at your own risk. This trick took me a while to find but it works great. You need to figure out how to put your phone in “field test mode”. All cell phones have such a thing. Most manufacturers won’t tell you how to do it. I found instructions online for my phone. Some phones display the signal in dB and some in dBm. -51 is strong and -105 is no signal. My phone was at -90 which is pretty weak. With my two amplifiers I get 5 bars! Just remember that the lower the number the stronger the signal. In field test mode I found a weak signal. In regular mode there were no bars so field test mode is more sensitive to signal strength.

I just now googled “cell phone field test mode” and there is a lot of info online to help you get into test mode.

The online company that makes all of the products I’m talking about is Put your phone in field test mode and get your signal strength. Take that number to Wilson on the phone and they can help you figure out which system would work best for you. I am not writing this to promote Wilson Electronics, but as a service to you the reader because Wilson products are the only ones out there to the best of my knowledge and you need to know about them. Also, they don’t sell their products to you from their site but they do give you a list of retailers to choose from.

I found a Wilson Products independent dealer that also does installations for people. Because he sells and installs the products he is very knowledgeable.  If you want his name you can contact me at either of the websites listed below and I can put you in touch with him.

The products are expensive but without them we wouldn’t be living here.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website  and

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