There are those like and those who need reliable communications in the backcountry. While professionals rely on radios and sat phones, the rest of us have cell phones, not always a bad thing thanks to the wide coverage in so many parts of the world. But quantity does not automatically beget quality, as anyone who has experienced dropped calls and terrible call quality with three solid bars can attest. Luckily weBoost can bridge the gap with a range of solid cell phone signal boosters. We tested the Drive Reach and found it to deliver consistently better call quality.
The weBoost Drive Reach is a big leap forward for 4G LTE cell boosters, the efficacy of which depend quite a bit on raw power. Cell phone signal is measured from -50dB (perfect signal) to -120dB (dead zone). The Reach has up to 50dB gain for incoming signal – the FCC max for mobile boosters – and 29.5dBm in uplink power for transmission. Keep in mind that every 3dB increase doubles the power because decibels are on a logarithmic scale. Before you get to the installation, remember to register your device with the FCC. It's free and just takes a minute.
The Drive Reach is clearly a quality-built product with about as simple a setup as possible, and you'll spend more time thinking about where to put the components than actually installing them, which takes about 15 minutes once you're ready. They lay out the sequence in clear stickers on each component so you can't mess it up: install magnetic exterior antenna, install interior antenna with included double-sided sticky Velcro, install amplifier and plug into cigarette adapter. Done! We mounted the exterior antenna above and ahead of the lip of rear hatchback on our 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee, the interior antenna on the right side of the driver seat, routed the exterior cable through the weather seal on the rear hatch and the interior cable we just duct taped to the floor in the center of the rear cabin. Both cables end up with the amplifier in the rear cargo area, just leave room around the amp for airflow to control heat. The amp has a convenient bracket with screw holes, but we didn't need to use them because there are also two very handy Velcro strips that grab the carpet liner securely. The Jeep's cargo area has a cigarette adapter so we just plugged it in. The adapter itself even has a USB pass through port, so if you need to mount it up front you get some extra flexibility.
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 10dB, and sometimes up to 30dB.
What's this mean in layman's terms? We made 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 cost of the Drive Reach puts it beyond the budget of most casual users, but for those of us who frequently need reliable comms on the fringes of normal cell service, the Drive Reach is absolutely worth the investment.