Wilson Cell Phone Amp — Install and First Test

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | September 21, 2010      

You can blame it on the evil cell phone corporations, but lack of cell coverage is as much the fault of nimbyism as it is any nefarious capitalist plot. Yeah, most of us love (or at least need) our mobiles — but don’t put a tower within a mile of MY house, and oh, that one you want to put over there is ugly so don’t do it. Result, even major highways here in Colorado have numerous dead spots.

But you can compensate. Since calling from inside a vehicle attenuates your phone signal, first step is to rig an external antenna system. After that, hook up an amp such as Wilson Signal Boost and get even more range. So we did.

Cell phones for backcountry skiing.

Looks like a simple cell phone holder, but no, this Wilson cradle picks up signal to and from phone, boosts it, and gives you two or three more bars.

I’ve experimented quite a bit with this stuff over the years. You can get a modest but noticeable improvement (one bar or so) by just hooking up to a mag-mount antenna on the roof of your car. Thing is, it’s a bit of trouble to do this and the improvement is indeed minimal. But, include an amp in the system and you’ll be blown away by your bar count.

You can find cell phone amplification systems from a variety of sources, but we’ve always felt that Wilson Electronics had the best engineering and quality. Thus, to begin our project we began with the Wilson kit containing an antenna, amp, and phone cradle. Basically, the cradle is just an antenna that helps the phone talk with the amp. Downside of this is your phone needs to be on or within a few inches of the cradle for the system to work, so you’ll need some kind of hands free talk setup.

That said, you can avoid the need for a hands-free setup by choosing Wilson sensor/antennas that attach to the back of your phone, or mount in the vehicle near where you’re using the phone, but I like the idea of a more positive yet simple connection so I chose the cradle option. (Some phones come with external antenna connectors that yield a super positive connection, but are prone to damage and yet another thing to fiddle with. For amplification, ‘passive coupling’ with a cradle seems to work just as well and keeps it simple.)

Of course we’re never satisfied with standard tech. So knowing we’d be in super marginal reception zones, we also got a Wilson “Trucker” antenna that is said to be their strongest for cell phone transmit/receive. The Trucker antenna has the correct cable connectors to integrate with the Signalboost kit (though for integration with our slide-in camper we’ve been installing some extra connectors in the system, more about that in another blog post).

Before we go on to some photos and details of the install in our backcountry skiing transport vehicle, how about our test results? In a word, amazing. My combined Trucker antenna and amp system results in two to three more bars in places where before I’d only had one to none. Even more important, on a rural drive I’ve been doing almost daily, my system range has been extended from drop point that was only a few miles out of town, to 16 miles up a canyon (with one three minute dead zone)!! That section of driving takes me about 40 minutes both ways, so by installing the Wilson system I’ve got about 40 extra minutes a day to do my phone business. (Don’t get the idea I’ve got my phone super-glued to my ear, but I do spend a bit of time on it every day, and getting to do some of that while driving is a huge time saver.)

Wilson cell phone amp booster amplifier.

The amplifier is about the size of a large person's hand. It requires three wires, one from the phone cradle, one for power, and one out to the antenna. The kit comes with good directions on how to route the wires. The amp is durable and heat resistant, so it can be stored or mounted just about anywhere in the cabin, just make sure the wire and cable connectors are protected from damage.

Wilson antenna on backcountry skiing rig.

This elegant mag-mount antenna (12 inches tall) comes with the Wilson kit. It works fine for your average problems with dead spots on the highway, but if you're seeking maximum range consider using something taller (and uglier).

Wilson trucker antenna on truck roof.

This Wilson 'trucker' antenna shouts 'geek on board,' but it gives me about one bar more over the small mag-mount. It didn't seem to extend maximum range in my test canyon, but fringe zone calls had better quality. Thus, most people would be perfectly happy with the mag-mount that comes with the kit. As you can see in photo, I mounted this big stick on a pivot bracket so I can tilt it back for low hanging branches, or remove it entirely when we use our slide-in camper.

Silverado dashboard removal for backcountry skiing TAV.

Installing the amp requires a feed wire from the dash cradle. You can run this fairly cleanly by just bringing it down the front of your dashboard and perhaps attaching with some small velcro tabs. I prefer 'factory' style installs, so I popped out my dashboard and routed the feed wire so it's not visible. Now that testing is done, I'll hide the amp and other wires as well.

Backcountry skiing cell phone booster.

To get the cradle wire behind the dash, I routed it through a clean hole hidden behind the cradle. Yeah, we like drilling holes in new trucks, it adds character!

A note about Wilson boosters: Their minimalist setups such as the MobilePro will give you a slight improvement and may be all you need it you’ve always got a signal and are just seeking to improve it. But if you want to eliminate dead zones and increase your range, go for a full-on amplification system — it will be money well spent.

For testing, I left the amp uninstalled and didn’t do a clean job of routing my antenna wires. Once everything is tidied up and I’ve used the rig for a while, I’ll file a final report. Till then, some of you who need your cell phone time might want to consider a Wilson system for your backcountry skiing trailhead approach vehicle.


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30 Responses to “Wilson Cell Phone Amp — Install and First Test”

  1. Clyde September 21st, 2010 8:17 am

    Now if they would just offer a cell relay station in your vehicle, like ham radio geeks have, so your vehicle would become a portable cell tower….

  2. Bart September 21st, 2010 8:37 am

    You are seriously hardcore! Personally I’m not big fan of phones, but I totally respect your passion to improve whatever it is that captures your imagination. Great post!

    Waiting for the flakes,


  3. El Jefe September 21st, 2010 9:43 am

    Can you make a call from, lets say, the end of the quarry road? How far up castle creek rd?

  4. Clyde September 21st, 2010 10:32 am

    Check this out Lou, a new toy! http://yhoo.it/9ny5LR

  5. Tim September 21st, 2010 10:33 am

    Do you use 3G? Do you notice if it boosts that signal? I’d love to be able to tether from more remote locations to use my laptop in addition to the phone functions.

  6. Bryan September 21st, 2010 12:23 pm

    Sweet flip phone.

  7. Pedro September 21st, 2010 2:14 pm

    Hey… whats you re-mail? the one you have on the website doesn’t work

  8. Lou September 21st, 2010 7:39 pm

    pedro, you must have typed it wrong, see http://www.wildsnow.com/contact/

  9. Lou September 21st, 2010 7:47 pm

    Jefe, I’ve not tested up Castle Creek, but it works all the way up to Redstone plus a few places beyond there, including the grade up to McClure pass. If you put the trucker antenna on a mast in Redstone, it would probably work to make calls from a home located there. BTW, Wilson sells an amp that’s more powerful than the one I’m using. Now I’m eager to try that one too!

  10. Lou September 21st, 2010 7:50 pm

    Tim, the amp is dual band so I’m assuming it’ll help with 3G… call Wilson…

  11. cases September 22nd, 2010 2:32 am

    I like if the antenna on front or back not on the roof.

  12. Lou September 22nd, 2010 5:55 am

    Clyde, that satellite enabled cell phone looks super interesting. Good price on the sat option. But with only one satellite up there, one has to wonder about reliability as well as how coverage would be in canyons, especially up north since the satellite is located over southern US. I’ve still got the Iridium I bought for Denali, but it’s expensive to keep activated so that’s always a dilemma. I’ve sure enjoyed having it, though.

  13. Steve L September 23rd, 2010 11:46 am

    Lou –

    I’m a RF engineer and have worked on cellular telecom systems for 15+ years. What you are doing here is illegal.

    Unless you have formal authorization from your carrier (which appears to be Verizon) you may not install and operate a BDA. Additionally, only non-mobile applications are permitted by the FCC, so even if you did have authorization by your carrier this specific installation would be contrary to the rules in the US. I have included a link in my sig to an enforcement action for an unauthorized BDA for your reference.

    In the infinite wisdom of the FCC, consumers are allowed to purchase these devices. The device is legal (type accepted by the FCC), but marketed for an illegal application by Wilson.

    So, what is the harm? These devices typically are capable of amplifying the entire PCS and Cellular bands. When you drive under another carrier’s tower there is a very good potential that the device will interfere with their service. Additionally, if/when the device goes bad it will interfere with the networks around you, to the point that they get shut down completely. This impacts 911 traffic, plus any public safety entity using a commerical service (typically for high speed data.)

    The above are simply factual statements. My personal opinion is that the Wilson product is a piece of junk. They fail often, and do not fail in a graceful manner. My team has spent countless hours tracking down and removing these devices from service, along with the FCC and my Fire/Police radio partners in the areas I serve. You probably paid less than $500 for a amp that will be used in a non-temp controlled, vibration prone environment; for comparison, the cheapest device that meets my company’s specs costs us over $1500 – and trust me we test and look for the least expensive quality unit we can. Additionally, we only deploy them in temp controlled, fixed locations.

    Please consider this.

  14. Lou September 23rd, 2010 6:33 pm

    Steve, thanks for the info, I’ll look into it.

  15. Katie September 25th, 2010 8:21 am


    Please more info. Also, I did not see the link you mentioned about an enforcement action. What is the legal application for these units? I have used this device for years (since analog signals went dead). This is the only way I can get a phone to work at my house.

  16. Jim Cooper September 27th, 2010 8:02 am

    Out here in the sticks of western Nebraska these devices are quite common and were equiped in all the agronomy service pickups I used to use. Once our analog bag phones didn’t work with their higher power there was little option. Our coverage has gotten better but holes still exist. We recently installed a UHF narrow band repeater with mobiles and handhelds on this farm to fill in the gaps. We had motorola 800 band trunked radios with phone patches but the towers were sold to cell co’ s and service was discontinued.

  17. JB September 27th, 2010 3:33 pm

    Hi Steve, my name is Jonathan Bacon, and I am the Marketing Director at Wilson Electronics. I came across your comments, and I wanted to address your thoughts.

    First off, the points you bring up are valid ones. Improperly designed broadband cell boosters (amplifiers), which do not address automatic oscillation detection and shut down, proper power control algorithms, proximity overload to another carrier’s site, and many other issues that we at Wilson are aware of, and deal with in our designs, are prevalent and do create problems.

    To make matters worse, inadequate booster certification standards by the FCC have allowed troublesome boosters into the marketplace. Wilson Electronics has gone to extreme measures in recent years to build boosters that are harmless to cell sites. Other boosters should be held to the same standards. That is why Wilson Electronics filed a petition with the FCC, asking that booster certification requirements be increased. In summary, not all boosters are created equal.

    There are “carrier approved solutions” for signal boosting, available only for fixed, (building) installations, that run somewhere north of $5,000 (minimum). They are useless in a vehicle or a boat; therefore, carriers offer no solution for people on the go. Broadband boosters are perfect for users on the go as they are affordable and convenient.

    The main issue preventing these devices from being blessed by the carriers is lack of communication or dialog. Mobile boosters would be approved if carriers were more willing to communicate with us. As this state of the art technology is available, we want to share it with the carriers, in order to ultimately benefit the end user.

    In summary, a well known industry consultant Andy Seybold has reviewed our products, and written a white paper that covers our safeguards in more detail. We would be happy to share this with you or anyone (it’s available on our website). We’re working hard to get over the misinformation about boosters out there, and to help eliminate sub-standard boosters from the marketplace. Hope this helps!

  18. Lou September 27th, 2010 6:58 pm

    Jonathan, thanks for dropping by! I suspected you guys had your act together with this stuff — it sounds like you indeed do! Lou

  19. Steve L September 28th, 2010 9:56 pm

    Key quote from JB: “Mobile boosters would be approved if carriers were more willing to communicate with us.” Mobile boosters are not defacto approved. Plain language: there is a requirement for approval; the carriers own the spectrum, are responsible for quality, and devices that operate on that spectrum required to be approved for use by the carrier.

    For those willing to sift through a whitepaper regarding the carriers perspective:

    You can dance around the specs all day, but the bottom line is that these devices require authorization by a licensee to operate. No authorization? Then it is illegal to use. And even well designed devices fail; the issue here is the ability of your carrier to quickly track down the interference source and restore the network to normal operation. Having unregistered amplifiers roaming around the network greatly complicates that.

    The FCC allows the amplifier community to market directly to the consumer – by what logic escapes rational thought when these devices require either authorization or a licence to be put to use.

    Lou – If you are 100% confident in the answer that JB provided, please contact the FCC Enforcement Bureau and notify them of your installation and operation. They would give you a pretty quick readout on this. You would potentially be fined, but the $$$ are generally cheaper than recruiting the advice of a qualified FCC regulatory attorney.

    Your local enforcement branch lead out of Denver would be Nikki Shears, phone 303-231-5212. You can contact her directly; she might require you to call one of the FCC’s 800 numbers get a formal case started. In my experience the local FCC folks are very helpful.

    And, again, Wilson has been evaluated by my employer for use on our networks. They are not used by us.

  20. JB September 28th, 2010 10:36 pm

    Steve, I know you’d probably love to fight it out on this one, but personally that’s not my style. I probably should have said, “Mobile boosters would be approved BY THE CARRIERS…” I can see how omitting that would lead you to believe that our boosters are not FCC approved.

    However, each and every booster we sell is approved by the FCC and is IC Type Accepted as well (in fact, TELUS and Bell, two of Canada’s largest carriers actually sell our products to their customers as a customer retention tool–we went through a stringent approval process with them that actually led to us tweaking the safety measures even further. The difference with the U.S. carriers–dialog).

    Truth is, you won’t find any evidence of the FCC handing out a fine. If there is a booster that causes interference on a carriers frequency the user is asked to shut it down. Only the most belligerent customer would not comply. Our attorneys in DC have looked into this extensively and have not found any instance of anyone being fined over this.

    At the end of the day we will have to agree to disagree. I’m happy to bore all of you with the exact FCC rule that we will agree to disagree on (and how we interpret it) if others are interested. Otherwise feel free to buy one of our FCC approved boosters at any notable retailer such as BestBuy.com, RadioShack.com, Walmart.com, Buy.com, Amazon.com and more than 1,000 other retailers nationwide.

    Steve, I’d be more than happy to put you in contact with one of our engineers. They are always anxious to discuss the ins and outs of our boosters safety features with other engineers. If you work for one of the carriers, we would be even more interested in discussing this with you. Feel free to reach out to me at jbacon@wilsonelectronics.com. Thank you for the discussion.

    At the end of the day, we’re still happy that Lou had such a good experience with our signal booster. 🙂

  21. JB September 28th, 2010 10:53 pm

    I apologize as I meant to leave this alone, but there was one other comment I wanted to respond to. Steve said “the carriers own the spectrum.” Correction, the carriers “license” the spectrum from the government. It is owned by the people of the United States. That said, they provide what I believe is an incredible service offering for everyone, and we, as a company, respect that deeply.

  22. Lou September 29th, 2010 5:44 am

    I’ll research this, and if anything comes of it I’ll blog about it. Meanwhile, it is my understanding that cell phone boosters of the correct wattage are legal, Wilson probably being the most obvious example. Just like you’re allowed a certain watt transmit level for an FRS radio or CB. To not assume that flies in the face of reason, as boosters are very common and used all over the world for various applications. Also, if people were running around with these things and shutting down whole cell networks or even just one tower, I’m sure we’d be hearing about it. To concede a point to Steve, perhaps the law and FCC rules have not kept up with technology, and we have a “grey area” situation. If that’s the case then so be it. Meanwhile, I’m saving more than 1/2 hour a day of precious time by being able to make calls I couldn’t make before.

    Also, if the cell phone companies actually provided the coverage their maps show when you buy a phone, much of this would go away. As I said in my post, I don’t blame the companies for all of that, but I certainly don’t give them a 100 percent pass. They could probably be doing a better job of finding tower locations, and most certainly be allocating more money towards that end.

    More info:

  23. Lou September 29th, 2010 5:57 am

    “At the end of the day, we’re still happy that Lou had such a good experience with our signal booster. :-)”

    And who knew we’d have a bit of spicy commentary to make it even more interesting? 😀

  24. Steve L September 29th, 2010 11:47 am

    Lou –

    I’ll give you a couple of anecdotes on amp failures. They do happen.

    The first one involves an airport in Seattle and a Wilson BDA. One of the tennant organizations at the airport decided to install an amplifier to provide coverage in their workspace. They purchased the electronics & ran coax – it was overall a professional job. They turned the system on and the airport’s 911 call center’s headset system went down. They coordinated internally and afer a couple of days figured out what had happened. I got dragged into the situation to explain how ‘my’ amplifier had caused a whole series of issues, and received a lecture on the threat to life safety the disruption to the call center posed. Was it the amp or the install? Who knows. But the application of the device was not well thought out.

    Another involved a car based booster of unknown make that was wired into the ignition of the vehicle it was installed in. We could tell exactly when the vehicle was being driven because it would leave a trail of high noise alarms & dropped calls across the network. We spent over a month trying to track the thing down. If you have ever spent time trying to triangulate a moving target, it is pretty challenging. Ironically, it was located due to dumb luck – he parked next to one of our techs one day.

    The end state question: How will you know if it interferes with another user? Sometimes these devices quit working gracefully, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the failure is intermittent, sometimes not. Both cases above the installers had no idea they were causing issues.

    Having your registered through the carrier allows them to investigate & troubleshoot efficiently. We track down malfunctioning mobiles every day, have them reset, or have customer care contact the end user to get the device replaced. Our BDA applications have contact info, as-builts, etc. that we keep to ensure we can quickly track down faults. Unfortunately, you probably cannot register this install with Verizon due to contract issues (in addition to the FCC stuff.)

    And it does go without saying that the carriers could do many things better; rural coverage being pretty near the top of the pile.

  25. JB September 30th, 2010 12:58 am

    Steve, simply, we’re working to improve and make our products safer and more efficient for the carriers every day. Are the carriers immune to power outages, data overload from too many people using their data rather than just voice, or other events that can cause dropped calls? No. Can accidents continue to happen? Yes. Are we working to make the products even easier to track and monitor? Yes.

    For some additional perspective, I’ll put it this way. At present there are more than a million boosters in use throughout the U.S. Each year, approximately 100 complaints are received per year by the carriers by all of the booster manufacturers combined. Despite this infinitesimally small number of complaints Wilson is sympathetic to the carriers concerns, which is why we filed a Request for Rule Change with the FCC to try and eliminate from the marketplace all of the poorly manufactured boosters.

    All of that said, and as much as I’ve enjoyed this exercise, I hope that at this point we can agree to disagree and remain respectful of one another.

  26. Lou September 30th, 2010 5:51 am

    Speaking of booster use, I noted on Denali that the ranger camp at 14,000 feet had a cell antenna and booster system. Or at least that’s what it appeared they had in addition to park service radios etc.

    Side note: Guides told me that for years you could make analog cell phone calls from 14,000 -foot camp on Denali West Butt. While we were up there, one of the guides told me that the analog service finally quit and they couldn’t make calls anymore. Of course they all had sat phones so it was no big deal, just an inconvenience. But I’d expect to see a few boosters up there next season as I suspect that using them will allow one to make calls from the 14,000 foot camp even if digital instead of analog.

  27. Katie September 30th, 2010 8:10 pm

    Lou, I remember years ago calling home from the summit of Denali on an old bag phone. I could see a booster being very adventageous up there also.

    I have had a Wilson booster for years and never had any problems with mine.

    Steve or JB. So I just moved, I am on the fringe for cell service. I have a booster and an antennae just like Lou’s, it works pretty good. Is there a better antennae or booster on the market that I could use to get an even stronger signal? I am trying to do the internet thing through Verizon and it works, but barely and trying to stream a video is almost unbareable. I would love to go this route instead of getting satellite internet.

    Thanks for you comments here.

  28. JB October 1st, 2010 11:46 am

    Hi Katie,

    Just to confirm, if you’re looking for something more powerful for a car, we would recommend the following signal booster, 801212 (http://oran.gs/00J), with a the following cradle (that doubles as an antenna) 301146 (http://oran.gs/00K). Since that is a higher gain signal booster, it should give better results with in weak signal area.

    If you are looking for something more powerful in a home, which I believe you are, we would need to speak with you to get some specifics on your situation before we can help. If you don’t mind, please contact me at jbacon (place the usual character here) wilsonelectronics.com and I’ll put you in touch with one of our best techs! Hope this helps.

  29. Lou October 1st, 2010 6:16 pm

    Katie, they have some stuff for stationary installations that is awesome. Get in touch with Jonathan as he suggests.

  30. ibooster July 16th, 2011 3:19 pm

    I have not seen such a clean install og cell phone booster before, very nice job!

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