High on the list of poorly-kept secrets is the fact that we are big fans of weBoost cell signal boosters. Unlike most people we have access to good radios and even satellite phones but practically speaking what we normally have with us are cell phones. Cell phones are great for convenience and safety in urban areas and along well-traveled highway corridors, but RVing around Alaska it's pretty easy to find yourself in truly rural areas where the cell signal is weak or nonexistent. If it's really nonexistent you're out of luck no matter what, but often it's just weak, and that means we've got some room to improve it with a signal booster. Enter the weBoost.
The X RV is weBoost's latest big-gun cell booster, designed for RV use by combining a powerful booster with an OTR antenna. OTR stands for Over The Road, as in long haul trucking, but in this case just think of it as Over The Roof, because that's where this antenna will be mounted. The X RV has up to 50dB gain for incoming signal – the FCC max for mobile boosters – and 24.84dBm in uplink power for transmission. Keep in mind that every 3dB increase doubles the power because decibels are on a logarithmic scale.
It's no exaggeration to say that weBoost has one of the best out of the box experiences of any consumer electronics product. They provide clear diagrams that show how all components fit together, the detailed instructions are clearly illustrated step by logical step with matching labels on each bag of components, and they provide in the box everything you need for installation: zip ties, cable organizers, even a hole saw in case you need it. The only thing you might want that's not in the box is some RTV sealant to apply from the inside if you need to drill an entry hole for the exterior antenna cable, although they do provide a trim piece and gasket for the outside.
As usual with cell boosters, before you get to the installation remember to register your device with the FCC. It's free and just takes a minute. Once you start installation, it's fairly straightforward especially if you have a roof port to route the 25 foot exterior antenna cable through or a slide-out you can use for the purpose. If you have to drill, just make sure there's nothing important you're drilling through. Once you've mounted the exterior antenna, routed the cable inside, mounted the booster and mounted and connected the interior antenna you're done. Give yourself an hour or two and you're good to go.
The interesting part is testing the unit, the gory details of which are below. The simple way to test is when you're in a marginal signal area just power the X RV off, look at your cell signal, power the X RV on and look again. Sitting at a campground at the southern end of Kenai Lake we consistently watched the signal go from none to one usable bar. The bottom line is that with the Drive X RV installed we could make more connections, and the connections we made had generally better voice quality and fewer dropped data packets. This means you will get usable signal in more places and better quality on the signal that you're using.
The gory details: cell phone signal is measured from -50dB (perfect signal) to -120dB (dead zone). After installing put your phone in field test mode to see your signal strength in dB, because the bars that supposedly show signal strength really don’t mean jack. On iOS 12 open phone app > dial pad > type in *3001#12345#* > hit send to open a hidden menu. Go to LTE > Serving Cell Meas > look at the rsrp0 number to see the strength of the closest cell tower in dB. On an iPhone this mode used to replace the useless bars with a useful numerical decibel reading where -50dB is a perfect signal and -120dB is a dead zone. However since iOS 11 you now get this funky menu setup that has a lot more information but is difficult to read, not least because the list of data that includes the critical rsrp0 number keeps automatically resorting every second or so. If you’re specifically interested in data up/download speeds get the Speedtest app by Ookla to test your speeds before and after boosting.
Signal strength generally depends on the location and power of the nearest cell tower, which you can find at least roughly with a number of apps and websites. Performance of the Drive Reach depends on signal strength: the higher the signal strength, the more you'll gain, it's just the nature of the thing, and weBoost recommends a base signal strength of -100dB to operate. We still saw small gains of 5 to 10dB, although somewhat inconsistently, at a base strength of -110 to -120dB. At around -90 to -100dB we saw consistent improvements of at least 15dB, and often up to 30dB. If you're looking to go from zero to hero in cell phone hair-pulling zones, weBoost is your answer.