Help Me, Tom's Guide: How Do I Get a Better Cellphone Signal?

When your kids head off to college, it's challenging enough to get them to call home regularly. So, if they do phone you, you certainly want those calls coming through loud and clear.

Unfortunately, that's not what's happening for reader Pat, who emailed to share this paternal lament with us:

"Our son lives in Chicago in a college dorm and complains about his phone not working well there. We don't know if it is the phone or the prepaid Verizon service. I'm not sure what the problems are, but I think the phone service drops calls and Messenger video while he's on it. Could this be the prepaid service? He has an older Moto G4 Play phone. I have the same phone and service but only have problems with Messenger sometimes when he and I talk. We don't know if we should switch to Verizon postpaid or get him a new phone or both. Any recommendations?"

From this description, it doesn't sound like a problem with the phone. And it's not a matter of Verizon's prepaid service versus its postpaid offering; the two use the same cellular towers, with the only real difference being that prepaid customers might face slowdowns if Verizon's network gets too congested. That doesn't sound like what's happening here.

My guess is the culprit is your son's dormitory. Either it's built out of materials that aren't particularly friendly to cellular signals — concrete walls can cause a problem, for instance — or it's located in a place that doesn't have a clear view of Verizon's nearest cellular tower. That would explain the dropped calls, especially if the problem happens regularly and not at specific times of the day.

It's likely of little comfort to you, Pat, but Verizon's network is actually fairly strong in Chicago, with Big Red dominating other carriers when we tested LTE speeds this past summer. But those results reflect only our various test locations around the Windy City. Cellular service can vary from location to location and building to building. For example, I live in the Bay Area, where AT&T's network is fairly extensive, but the only place in my house I can pick up an AT&T signal is on my front porch. It sounds as if Pat's son is in a similar boat, only with Verizon's network.

When you're faced with a weak cellular signal in the one place you spend most of your time, you've got two options: one for if you want to stick with your current carrier and another if you're ready to take your wireless business elsewhere.

MORE: Fastest Wireless Networks 2018: We Tested 8 Carriers to Crown a Winner

If your son would prefer to keep getting his wireless service from Verizon, he should first try to enable Wi-Fi Calling if his phone supports it. With Wi-Fi calling, you're making calls over a Wi-Fi network, which can be a good workaround when you're at home and the cellular signal just isn't cutting it. All four major carriers offer the feature; here are Verizon's instructions for using it, along with similar links from AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile. But you will need to use an eligible phone.

You can also try a network extender to improve the cellular signal that reaches your home. You can buy a third-party option, though home boosters can cost a couple hundred dollars. Sometimes, wireless providers will offer their customers a signal booster for free or for a nominal fee, though I'm not sure that's available to prepaid customers. I've contacted Verizon to see what its policy is or if it recommends any particular network extenders for its customers, and I'll update the story if the company responds.

If that sounds like a lot of effort to go through just to get a better signal, I'd suggest looking to another carrier that provides more-reliable service in your specific area. (And, really, one of the big benefits of having prepaid wireless service is that you can up and leave for another provider practically at will.)

This will require a little legwork on your part. When I moved to my house — you know, the one without any AT&T coverage — I borrowed cellphones tied to different carriers to see which signal worked best where I live. That's likely not an option for everyone, so I'd suggest, Pat, that your son talk to other people in his dorm, particularly those who live on the same floor, to see who provides their cellphone service and whether they're happy with call quality.

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  • djs27711
    Not only dropped calls
    My question is WHY would anyone pay thousands of $for a smartphone when you can't reach anyone
    I think why so many never upgrade is the nmodems in the phones are TERRIBLE until phone makers put a better modem in thier phones I'll just buy nothing