When you live and work in a big city as I do, it’s easy to forget that not everyone in the UK enjoys great mobile coverage. Depending on your mobile provider, some rural areas have little to no coverage at all. Fortunately there are a few things you can do if you have poor mobile reception.
But before you try any of the suggestions below, do a few preliminary checks. One cause of poor signal is the case on your phone. Before smartphones, mobiles had an external antenna but these days they are internal. Putting a case on your phone (especially a metal one) can affect reception, just as can holding your phone 'wrong' as Steve Job famously claimed when iPhone users complained. There is some truth in that, but a combination of removing the case, holding your phone so you're not obstructing the antenna lines and even going to the highest room in your home which faces your nearest mobile tower can improve signal strength considerably.
Where is your nearest tower? If you're in the UK, you can check out the Mast Data website which will show you a map with the mast locations and which networks use them. Interesting stuff... if you're a geek.
Poor mobile signal? Use Wi-Fi instead
Most UK households have fast enough broadband for Wi-Fi calling. There’s really no difference between Skype and what most mobile operators name 'Wi-Fi calling'. It’s simply a phone call which uses the internet instead of the mobile phone network.
You can check if your provider offers Wi-Fi calling, but it’s also important that your phone supports it too. If one or both turn out to be incompatible, you could simply use Skype instead. Skype is available for most phones and it’s completely free, so long as you're calling another Skype user.
Chances are that the person you want to call already has a Skype account, but if not, it’s quick and easy to create one, install the app, log in and receive (or make) a phone call over Wi-Fi. Skype allows you to call phone numbers as well, for a fee. That’s useful if you have poor signal but your recipient doesn’t and isn’t willing to install Skype – or it isn’t appropriate to ask them to install it, such as if you’re calling a business or customer service centre.
There are, of course, plenty of alternatives to Skype, such as Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, Viber, and FaceTime (the last of which works on Apple devices only). So if you already chat with someone using one of those apps, you can also call them over Wi-Fi.
However, you can’t expect the other person to be connected via Wi-Fi at the exact moment you want to call them, which is why all the UK’s main networks offer Wi-Fi calling:
O2 allows owners of certain handsets (most recent iPhones, Samsung, and Sony phones) to make Wi-Fi and 4G calls without using a specific app.
EE offers Wi-Fi calling but only to pay monthly customers, and only on certain phones.
Vodafone provides very similar Wi-Fi calling which supports only certain phones.
Three offers an app (inTouch) so even those without a phone compatible with Wi-Fi calling can call and text without a mobile signal.
Mobile phone signal boosters
If you find that you can only get reception in upstairs rooms in the house, or by walking down to the bottom of the garden and standing on a bench, then a signal booster could help.
These are also known as 'femtocells'. However, be very careful what you buy. As you’ll find on Ofcom’s website most of the devices you can buy online are actually illegal to use.
You can approach your mobile provider and ask if they will supply (or sell you) a repeater, but we’ve found that unless you’re a customer on a monthly contract, they tend not to be very helpful. If you do end up having to pay for a booster out of your own pocket, they can cost from £70 up to as much as £600 and there are no guarantees they will solve your problem.
If you do want to go down this route, it’s best to go with the option offered by your network operator rather than buying a box from a third-party. Just because a website is called o2signalbooster.co.uk does not mean it is the official supplier for O2 signal boosters. And if you do stump up a lot of money and find it doesn't work, you might not be able to return the box for a refund.
Here are the links so you can find out more about the options offered by the four main UK networks:
O2 signal booster - Boostbox
EE signal booster - Signal Box
Three signal booster - Home Signal
Vodafone signal booster - Sure Signal V3
Most of these devices create a mobile signal by using your home broadband, while others repeat a weak signal.
Depending on your needs, one final (and slightly different) option is goTenna Mesh. These portable devices are designed primarily for hiking but will work anywhere with poor signal, and let you create a mini mesh network to communicate.
Sold in packs of two, four or eight, you simply pair each goTenna to a phone over Bluetooth and can then send encrypted messages (though not voice calls) between devices as long as they're in range - up to four miles in open terrain, and half a mile or so in busier urban environments. You can also use the devices to create a relay, extending the range with each one.
Obviously this won't be the ideal solution for everyone with low signal, but it could be perfect for people who want to reliably contact friends and family who live near them in the countryside or other low signal areas - or anyone hoping to plan for a visit to a low-signal area, such as a hiking trip or festival weekend. You can buy a pack directly from goTenna.
Change to another mobile network
This may sound extreme but if you have a terrible mobile signal at home, why not switch to another provider? It’s very easy to switch, and you can just as easily take your existing number with you by asking your old provider for a PAC. You then give this code to your new provider and they arrange to transfer your number.
But how do you know if another provider will offer a better mobile signal? Well, you can check each provider’s claims for coverage at a particular postcode using their coverage checkers. Each will tell you whether the signal will be good outdoors as well as indoors.
If you'd rather get an independent opinion on how good each operator's signal is in your area, head to opensignal.com - there's also mobile apps for Android and iOS.
But you don’t have to rely on claims. To make sure you’re happy before you switch, simply request a free pay-as-you-go SIM from a provider and try it out for a month in a spare phone (or even in your main phone). It’s likely to cost around £10 for a month’s use, but this is a small price to pay to fix poor coverage.
Most SIMs are now all-in-one, so you pop out the size you need for your phone. You’ll have to use the SIM’s new phone number for the trial, but at least you will have a very good idea of whether the coverage is significantly better than your old provider or not.
If not, try another provider until you find one with the best signal.