Which is better a MIMO Antenna or a cell booster? Why would you get one over the other? This is a complicated question as the technology for each work differently and while a mobile router such as a Pepwave and Booster can work together, they have certain draw backs and benefits this article will cover.
Why not just use a booster?
This is the most common area of confusion for our customers. Most of this is because of how cellular boosters are marketed by the manufacturer. Let's explain how boosters work. Cellular boosters work much like repeaters, they typically have a cellular antenna outside for picking up cellular signal and another antenna inside for broadcasting to your devices. This is all done wirelessly. The challenge with cellular boosters is that they are regulated by the FCC to only provide boosted signal on a handful of cellular bands also called "channels". About 5-7 bands in total out of the more than 30 in use in the USA are actually supported by boosters. This typically translates to boosters only "boosting" a small piece of what the cellular tower is transmitting. The FCC has these rules in place to prevent wireless pollution on the airways which would cause interference for all of us using cellular.
This issue is further complicated by the fact that like with all repeaters, you are adding a step in the communication process which can lead to interference, delay and other issues that will translate to slower data speeds. Because of this, we typically see that a booster can actually slow down or harm your cellular data performance in 80+ percent of situations when compared to a roof antenna in RV parks and other locations where the bulk of RV'rs frequent. Now that isnt to say boosters are bad, but they have their place which we will discuss later in this article.
Pros with the Roof Antenna
Roof antennas like the ones in our internet connectivity bundles are installed on the roof where they have a cleaner line of sight to the cellular tower. These antennas also provide cellular gain which will improve cellular reception from that of units without exterior antennas. These roof antennas typically have multiple cellular antennas inside them, usually 2 or 4 cellular antennas depending on the model. This is called MIMO support (multiple input multiple output) and allows your supported modem to talk to the cellular tower on more than one channel at the same time. This technology is how the cellular companies have improved the speeds of cellular networks over the last few decades. Having a roof antenna with MIMO support typically is the best way to get the fastest download speeds in most areas of the world.
The Roof antenna also has WiFi antennas built-in meaning you have much better wifi reception for WiFi-as-WAN (connecting to free/campground wifi) all in one roof package. Most Pepwaves support wifi-as-wan and with the wifi receiver on the roof, it can greatly improve the stability and reception of wifi from a public source (campground, restaurant, etc).
Where are Boosters Best?
Cellular boosters can be a great addition to your connectivity arsenal when used correctly. They are especially good for customers who want to improve the cellular voice quality of phone calls on cell phones inside their RV when walking around the RV. Boosters really shine in situations where you want to see less call drops on your cell phone.
They also can provide real benefit when traveling in areas where you are on the fringe of cellular connectivity and signal strength is very low. Remember nothing can create cellular signal out of nothing, but boosters when installed properly can turn a 1 bar signal into 2-3 bars which is very helpful for rural customers especially those who want to use cell phones in the RV.
Can I Use a Booster with My Pepwave?
Adding a weBoost to our bundle set up is possible, but it does require switching the antenna on the Pepwave from the roof mount cables to the stubby short black antennas included with the bundle. This is because if you want the Pepwave to take advantage of the booster, you need to place it close to the boosters interior antenna. Since by default the Pepwave is connected up to the roof, it is not close to the booster's internal antenna.
If you find yourself in a low signal area where the roof antenna is not providing adequate signal follow these steps to configure your Pepwave to utilize the booster's signal.
Disconnect the cellular antenna wires from your roof antenna and connect the small black antennas that came with your modem to the Pepwave. Once you have installed the small black antennas on the Pepwave place it directly next to the Weboost interior antenna, usually within 12 inches for best performance. This setup is great for taking ‘just out of range cell coverage’ and giving you a few bars to provide usable internet. That said, with our travels we leave our roof antenna hooked up 95% of the time for the reasons listed above. For the 1-2 times per year the booster saves us, we are glad it is in our setup and fewer dropped voice calls on our cell phones even when our Pepwave isn't using the booster is a nice plus.