As more Americans drop their landline service in favor of a cellphone, the importance of a good voice connection at home grows. Unfortunately, a call that works well on the street often deteriorates significantly in the bedroom or the basement.
Barely adequate signals outside become even worse once they must penetrate concrete, metal and multiple walls. Fortunately, you can take some steps to reduce weak and dropped calls. And soon, you will be able to improve the quality of the voice itself. Here's how:
Your own cell tower
All of the major carriers offer a device or technology that allows access to the standard cellular network through a home's broadband connection.
Three of the carriers provide what is essentially a personal cell tower that looks much like a standard Wi-Fi router. The setup is simple: You plug it into your router, where it accesses the cellular network and sends a signal into your home that can improve your connection quality to as high as five bars. Standard voice minute charges apply.
Each carrier's device works only for that carrier's subscribers and is sold by the carrier directly. AT&T calls its product a 3G MicroCell. Sprint's is the Airave Access Point and Verizon offers the Network Extender.
T-Mobile offers a different solution, called Wi-Fi Calling. It allows customers to make calls using an available Wi-Fi network. To do so, you need a Wi-Fi Calling-capable phone. Those include models using the Android, BlackBerry and Windows Phone 8 operating systems, but Apple's iPhone will not work with it.
AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon claim that their personal cell tower devices will improve coverage by up to 5,000 feet. In tests of the AT&T device, coverage in some areas about 25 feet away from the unit went from zero to five bars.
Depending on the carrier, the price for the personal cell site can be as high as $250, although many subscribers pay much less or even nothing. In interviews, each carrier said that if subscribers experience a large number of dropped calls in their home, they have a good chance of getting the device free.
Direct signal boosters
Unlike personal cell sites, signal boosters amplify the strength of all cellphone frequencies, regardless of carrier. That makes them a better choice for commercial spaces, where cell users may be customers of different providers.
Phone numbers don't have to be registered and, because the device doesn't use broadband to gain access to the cellular network, broadband speeds are not affected.
Signal boosters are just as easy to set up as personal cell sites. In tests, the DB Pro model from Wilson Electronics performed much like the personal cell site, raising a one- and two-bar signal to five bars within 25 feet of the antenna, but not improving the signal at the opposite end of my home.
Unlike personal cell sites, signal boosters are bought from retailers, with prices ranging from about $225 to $350.
No matter how strong the signal, the limited frequency range used by cellphones means that the calls will still sound worse than virtually any landline call. That is slowly beginning to change.
A technology called HD Voice promises to sharply reduce background noise and also improve voice fidelity. This YouTube video — bit.ly/19bFpQo — can give you a sense of HD Voice.
But there are caveats: The technology works only if you have an HD Voice-compatible phone (the iPhone is HD Voice-compatible on some networks), both parties are using an HD Voice phone on the same network and the network offers HD Voice technology in both locations.
A simpler way
If neither a personal cell site nor a signal booster is right for you, and you don't want to wait for HD Voice, there is one easier way to ensure that your cellphone call sounds like a landline's: When you're at home, simply forward all of your calls to your landline number. If the other caller is also using a landline, the quality will be great. On the iPhone, go to settings/phone/call forwarding. On Android phones, you'll find the feature at settings/my device/call/additional settings/call forwarding.