Design & DIY

Cell phone options in cottage country

Man on phone

Our cottage is located in a fringe cellular-reception zone. We used to call out through the nearby cell towers, but now that Rogers and Bell have shut down their analog networks, our cell phones get no service. Satellite phones are expensive. What are our options?
—Michael Park, Spence Township, Ont.

To make more room for digital, Rogers shut down its analog network in May ’07, and Bell followed in November ‘08. This is fine for the majority of cell phone users in Canada, who use digital phones anyway, but not good for some cottagers: Analog wasn’t as efficient as digital, but since analog phones had external antennas, they were better suited to remote areas where towers were scarce. (Now, as more digital towers go up, some cottagers may find their digital reception is stronger than their old analog service.) Along with tower placement, the location of trees, hills, and valleys all affect your service. This is why you might be able to get reception out on the lake, but not on your front porch.

One option is to boost your signal with a cellular amplifier. A typical booster kit comes with a small antenna for inside the cottage, a signal amplifier box, and an antenna to mount on your roof. (Mounting hardware and necessary cables are also included.)

If an amplifier doesn’t do the trick, you could try a digital bag phone, a transportable version of an old-school car phone. Just like analog phones, these have bigger, external antennas. (They’re less expensive than satellite phones.) Arnold Abramowitz, in the engineering department at Rogers, says the digital bag phone they offer will work in remote locations, with almost no exceptions. “If a person had analog coverage previously, it’s a safe bet that they should get service.”

Still not working? Try the amplifier on a bag phone. This is how Babine Lake, BC, cottager Joan Clancy connects. Her cabin is at the bottom of a hill and surrounded on three sides by trees. With only the bag phone, reception was crackly. Her amplifier—a Wilson Electronics version that she found on eBay—makes a big difference. However, the arrangement is still not perfect; she says time of day and cloud coverage affect reception.

Before you buy anything, Abramowitz suggests talking to a local wireless retailer, who will know about blackout and fringe zones in your area.