Tuesday, July 02, 2019

improving cell data with a refrigerator

I have been experimenting with my cell phone as the hot spot for my home internet. The pic is my Rogers cell based internet after placing my phone in the best location which I discovered here yesterday, on a box on top of my fridge.

Rogers is offering an unlimited data plan which was a $5/mo upgrade so I took it. I intend to drop my land line based internet to save by having cell only.

My current ADSL (phone line based) internet is the least expensive plan from the only landline provider in my area, Eastlink. I enjoy slow but solid internet, 5 Mbps download, 1 Mbps upload, unlimited for $75/mo. Rogers will now cost me $80/month for their cheapest wireless unlimited plan. (see their website and the pic above)

Before yesterday, my Rogers cell data and reception were not good inside the house. And highly variable, from un-usable to outstanding. Today, reception has not changed except that I found the best location from which to access my available signal. I am pleased with what I found but there are a couple of caveats (read on).

Where I live has two negatives for cell data. My house is low in elevation relative to the two area cell towers so much of the cell signal is blocked by surrounding hills. Second, my house is covered with a metal mesh based cement that effectively shields electromagnetic radiation, like cell signals. Two negatives.

I looked at 4G cell repeaters/boosters. Hundreds of dollars and not all work with Rogers. I haven't tried one yet.

I learned about cellular booster reflectors from old satellite dishes.

Instead, I loaded an app to measure cell signal strength. I am using Network Cell Info Lite. This one is for Android.

The gauge display shows main and next best cell signal strength in dBm. The gauge updates every second or so.

Most people don't think much about where they put down their phone. Maybe you carry yours? Our phones are marvelous little radios which are sensitive to orientation and surroundings! Especially when we need them to work their best.

I have been exploring my house for my BEST signal. Signal inside my house varies over a huge range from -100dBm to -125dBm. The dBm scale is logarithmic. Lower numbers in this case are hugely better.

I can see that I am using band 12. This changes sometimes to band 4. Both of these are 800-900 Mhz. In rural areas like mine, lower frequencies like these will travel further and have adequate data rates to impress me when working well!

I don't get to pick a tower or frequency. Those are selected auto-magically between my phone and my provider.

I can see LTE on the display. This might mean 4G but it's complicated in Canada.

Yesterday I drove to the two towers that serve my area. look up your local cell towers, operators and frequencies Each is about 6 km distant, one is to the north and one is south. Using my app phone signal strength meter I measured the signal about 1 km from the towers at about -60dBm! But nobody lives there, well not many anyway...

By clicking once on a tower in the map, I learn that at the northern tower, Rogers uses 700MHz, 850 MHz and 1900MHz, Bell uses 700 and 850. At the southern tower, Rogers uses only 700 and 850. Bell is not on the southern tower. More specific information on all of the cell transceivers at a tower comes up in a table if you double click on that tower.

Back at my house, quite by accident, I found TWO spots where the signal is best. Both are on top of large grounded metal objects: my refrigerator and my clothes dryer. The metal case of both appliances is attached through their electrical cords to earth ground.

With my phone flat directly on top center of either the fridge or the dryer, my signal strength is the best inside my house. The fridge is slightly better at -97dBm.

When I check download data rate using speedtest.net from either of those spots, it is noticeably higher (twice as high!) than most anywhere else in the house!

But Upload data rate is much worse when the phone is placed directly on top of these large metal objects! It slows to less than 1 Mbps. But - if I lift the phone up about 5 inches high and place it on an empty cardboard box (about 1/4 wavelength, my phone is using 850MHz) the download data is still good and the upload data improves enormously!

Is it possible that the appliances are making a ground plane for the phone, helping with receive and transmit?

I tried different height boxes (two, three, five and eight) and the five inch seemed to be best.

I tried changing the phone's orientation, on either side, on the ends, rotating it slowly in different planes while holding it approximately 5 inches above the fridge and trying to watch the display. But placed down flat on the phone's back on the 5 inch box seemed the best (lowest) dBm reading. Minor changes if rotated slightly and slowly on the box.

I tried putting the phone over a large un-grounded metal plate on the kitchen table, with and without the 5" cardboard spacer box. The metal plate made no difference.

I rarely use my phone for voice so parking it on top of a box on the fridge is no problem for me. I can hear it ring anywhere in the house.

When I go out, the phone comes with me so the home network stops. I don't have any "smart home" devices that need always internet so this is not a problem.

If there were two phones in the house, one could set up sharing of two cell links with two hot spots (with bridging?) to further improve data rate?

If you try this, please let me know.

This experience has caused me to clean the top of the fridge. It was pretty dirty up there but cleaning had no effect on the signal strength.

Thanks for your interest.

George Plhak
Lions Head, Ontario, Canada

Update Jul 22 2019 Eastlink has been OFF since I wrote this and I have been accessing the web with Rogers cell only. I frankly haven't noticed the change, except for generally better responsiveness (plus!) and having to retrieve my cell phone off the fridge when I go out and then putting it back (negative). The actual internet data service is far superior to what I was getting with Eastlink (5mbs down 1 mps up) as this speedtest just now shows. I was worried about the throttling back "feature" but that does not seem to have happened yet. I get my latest full Rogers bill with usage and dollars on the new plan tomorrow.