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Cell Signal: 5 Things That Affect Quality

cell phone signal

There are several things that can affect how good your cell phone signal is, things that you might not automatically consider when a call drops or when your phone shows the dreaded no bars. If you know and understand the types of things that can affect signal strength, you will be in a better position to make sure your calls all get through.

1 – Terrain

cell signal - terrain

Your mobile phone communicates using simple radio waves, and these travel in straight lines from your phone to the nearest visible cell tower. Anything that gets in the way can cause loss of phone signal strength or even signal failure.

For example, if your nearest cell tower was a mile away, but hidden behind a hill, and the next visible tower was five or ten miles away, you phone would be forced to connect to that one, rather than the much closer tower. In this case, distance would also begin to have an effect on signal strength. If you lived in a valley and all of the cell towers were outside of the valley, you would effectively be in a “Dead Zone”.

You might think that living in a city would be like being in an unnatural valley all of the time, but there are usually smaller radio towers or antennas placed all over cities so the signal never has to travel far. Radio signals can also bounce off of buildings and round corners, so you might not even need line-of-sight with a tower to get a signal. Again, in this instance, signal strength would be lost.

2 – Distance

The distance they need to travel is always a factor with any radio waves, and your phone signal is no different. The atmosphere is full of particles, and even in perfect conditions (I.e. no dust or rain or snow) the furthest distance to the nearest tower will need to be less than 25 miles if you expect any sort of signal.

Theoretically, a radio wave from a mobile phone could travel 45 miles, but depending on the network carrier, components used, and the receiving equipment, the real-world distance could be as low as 20 miles.

The more powerful the transmitter, the further the radio waves will travel, but there is a limit to how powerful a smartphone radio can be. In a city, distance is rarely a problem, but in the great outdoors (or even just in rural towns) this probably going to be a biggest factor affecting the quality of your cellular signal.

3 – Weather

cell signal - weather

Following on from the effect of distance on your phone signal, is the impact that weather can have. Just how much effect the weather has on your signal depends very much on the type of weather.

Heavy cloud, for example, can cause problems due to complicated sounding things like changes in radio propagation and signal reflection. Heavy rain can really get in the way of radio waves, and even light rain will have some effect, particularly if your device is using the high frequency ranges used by 4G.

In general, water in any form will reduce how far radio waves can travel, and in particular the high frequency waves used by cell phones. Water vapour will actually absorb energy from the radio waves, converting it into heat and essentially removing its strength.

4 – Building Materials

Being inside a building will, to at least some degree, affect how well your phone signal travels. Commonly used building materials like concrete, steel, brick and plaster are all great at blocking radio waves. Walls of mainly steel construction, or concrete walls with lots of steel reinforcing bars inside, will have the worst impact on cellular signal. This is especially true in rooms such as basements due to the lack of large (or indeed, any) windows.

If the lack of signal is just inside the building (i.e. you can get a good signal in the garden or on the balcony), it may be worth investing in a cell signal booster. This is a fairly simple bit of kit that receives the signal inside the building, and passes it through a cable to an externally placed antenna. It can then be sent to the nearest cell tower. If you don’t even get a good signal outside, a cell signal booster won’t help.

5 – Movement Speed

cell signal - movement speed

To make a call, your phone needs to be able to both send and receive signals to and from a cell tower. This back and forth happens incredibly quickly, so if you are standing still or even moving slowly, there is no problem. However, as soon as you start to move at speed (in a train for example), the constant changes in position can begin to cause issues.

Travel over 60mph and you will probably notice a distinct drop in call quality, and anything over 100mph will probably see calls being dropped completely, or at the very least, filled with stuttering and interference. Of course, you also have the added problem of potentially moving behind something which obstructs the radio waves as you travel.


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