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Mercedes Sprinter: Cell Phone Booster
Photographer and cyclist and Mac expert and software engineer Lloyd Chambers is available for consulting on general Sprinter considerations at his usual consulting rates via phone, or in person in the Palo Alto, CA area. Save yourself hours and mistakes by discussing issues up-front. More about Lloyd....
Field report to come with usage once installed and built up.
When I travel in the Eastern Sierra , a marginal cell signal is the bane of my day: hike 12 hours, back at dark, drive up to an hour to take care of business matters... then I can go to sleep. Then do it all over again.
The White Mountains are far better with a good line of sight to the cell tower in several places, but Yosemite and the Eastern Sierra generally have little or no cell phone coverage anywhere half-way up into the mountains. So a cell phone booster is high on my priority list; it might let me drive only part way down. Even near Lee Vining and Mono Lake, the cell signa ranges from marginal to unusable to good—and it can vary by day and weather.
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What is a cell phone booster?
A cell phone booster takes a weak cell signal (3G and/or 4G LTE), amplifies it, and then rebroadcasts the boosted signal to an area in need inside the vehicle. They are compatible with all cell phone service providers and work on any phone that uses 2G, 3G, and 4G signals. More info.
As of mid 2017, it is unclear if a 4G cell phone booster will be of any value for 5G networks. Since the best boosters and the ones appropriate for a Sprinter van cost up to $499, this question is an important one heading into 2018/2019.
Boosts voice and data signals so you have fewer dropped calls or lost connections and you get faster data uploads and downloads. There are cell phone boosters for vehicles and for indoor spaces like your home and office. Most signal boosters have three components, plus coax cable to connect the components:
• Tower Antenna – usually mounted on the roof of a vehicle, or the roof or side of a building. This antenna communicates with the cell tower. It can detect cell signals at levels up to 30 times fainter than the faintest signals your phone can detect.
• Booster Unit – this component amplifies cell signals.
• Device Antenna – this antenna is installed indoors or inside your vehicle and communicates with your phone or other cellular devices in your vehicle, home or office.
What a cell phone signal booster is not
It’s not a source of cell signal. A cell phone booster amplifies and redistributes existing signal. That means a signal booster must have an existing signal to work with. If there is absolutely no detectable signal in a location, a cell booster will not work there. A signal booster does not require an Internet connection. As explained in the previous bullet, a signal booster works with existing cell signals. It does not need an Internet connection to work. A cell phone booster does not require “pairing” or “syncing” with any phone or other device in order to work with that device. The booster simply boosts signals and makes them available to any cell device within range.
Which install for which vehicle?
The Sprinter van is ideally suited for installing a cell phone booster because any upfitting of a roof fan or other gear can fit an ideal antenna, like an NMO antenna, trucker mirror mount antenna or marine antenna. Temporary installs can use the Mini-Mag magnetic antenna.
- Be sure the booster can be turned off, as it will run continuously, consuming power if the vehicle supplies power when the engine is off. This is as simple as unplugging the power supply or using the on/off switch on the power supply. It is why wiring it directly to a power supply is a Bad Idea (and a good idea for a product improvement). Forgetting to turn it off will drain the battery over the course of several days.
- Some cars shut off DC power outlets when not running or a few minutes after the engine is turned off, which makes it a huge hassle (no power) if all one wants to do is to, say, access the internet while parked. Some other means of providing DC power will be needed for such cars.
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The weboost Drive 4G-X | 470510 (see PDF specs) at about $479 looks to be the best choice for Mercedes Sprinter van and other van and RV owners. The main choice is what type of antenna (more on that below).
Especially for a Sprinter, it makes sense to get a unit with 4G support, multi-user support, and up to 50 decibels of boost. But as of mid 2017, it is unclear if a 4G cell phone booster will be of any value for 5G networks.
There are many other variants , the key differences being antenna type, type of installation (magnetic or bolt on), boost power, whether it works while moving (or just parked), and the type of internal antenna. It is all quite confusing once installation is considered, but the best setup is the larger omnidirectional antenna if a bolt-on install is desired. Much simpler units can be had for passenger cars, with magnetic mounts for the antenna. Another thing to consider is whether the booster will be used in more than one vehicle—in that case a bolt-on antenna is no help.
The installation instructions suggest that the wires can go through the door area, and this is probably true for many vehicles. But my Porsche Cayenne Turbo has a fantastic gasketing system and tight-fitting well-sealed doors and getting that wire through looks iffy, and I’m not about to separate those seals to run a cable through. But for the Sprinter van, no problem if the antenna can be installed on the roof and run through the same or nearby hole as the roof fan as part of a permanent install. Thing is, what about 5G, which is not far off in the future?
Get weboost cell phone signal boosters at Amazon.com, including units for home usage. The weboost Drive 4G-X Cell Phone Signal Booster for Car, Truck, and RV Use is a solid starting point, with its included magnetic antenna. A permanent antenna can be upfitted to a Sprinter van or RV later—prove it out first for your own scenarios, and then do the hardware work. For example, I assume the Thule rooftop box on SUV won’t help the cell signal, but I am hoping it won’t hurt it much either—but I don’t know until I try it. Possibly a powerful neodymium magnet could attach the Mini-Mag antenna directly to the top of the box (with steel or magnet in the inside of the box).
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Internal antenna options
The default internal antennas have very little range—18 inches / 0.5 meters. For a better range, get the Desk Top Antenna.
External antenna options
For switching between vehicles and/or temporary installs or testing, use the Mini-Mag antenna. For permanent installation, there are several options, as shown.
These types of antennas can be purchased as options; it might be wise to start with the Mini-Mag antenna, test the device, then do a permanent install if it performs to satisfaction.
A cell phone booster must be registered.