Low Cost Way to Improve Your USB Mobile Broadband (3G/LTE) Reception

I have a mobile broadband USB dongle which I carry along with me every time I bring my laptop out. It has come in handy so many times especially when I’m doing work outside the house.

But there is a problem that I face quite often – cellular blind spots! Unfortunately, many cafes and public libraries are plagued with bad mobile reception. This means not being able to connect to the Internet at all, or more annoyingly, intermittent connection which makes it impossible to get any work done!

Well, I found a low cost solution to this problem! It’ll cost you no more than SGD$5! Well, ok, maybe SGD$10 if you need to buy an extension cable.

What is it?

It’s a mini 3G “satellite” dish!

It's a mini 3G "Satellite" dish!
It’s a mini 3G “Satellite” dish!

All you need to do is to spend about SGD$4-5 for a sieve.

The one I got is about 18cm in diameter. That would be the most ideal size. Make sure the concave is deep.

What I did next was to cut a little rectangle in the middle so that I can put my USB dongle in it. You can connect a USB hub or a USB extension cable at the back, and connect that cable to your computer.

I mounted my sieve on a mini camera tripod. You could tie this to a water bottle or something if you don’t have a mini camera tripod lying around. Anyway, these mini tripods are cheap. You can get one at about SGD$5 or so at Sim Lim Square.

Next, like a satellite dish, just turn your mini 3G “satellite” dish (slowly) until you get the most optimum reception. In some cases, you might have to point it up or down.

Pretty cool, yeah?
Pretty cool, yeah?

I got this idea from the Internet. Some people have suggested doing the exact same thing to improve Wifi reception using a Wifi USB dongle. I figured it might be possible to apply this solution to 3G networks since we’re dealing with electro-magnetic waves.

How much of an improvement did I get from this solution?

Well, let me show you the results!

Here’s the reception strength when the mobile broadband dongle is plugged in normally to the laptop:

The reception measures at -95dBm (wavers between 2-3 bars of reception).

When the mobile broadband dongle is used normally (plugged directly into the laptop).

Here’s the results when the mobile broadband dongle is plugged into the mini “satellite” dish:

Here's the results after the mobile broadband dongle is plugged into the mini "satellite" dish. It's an improvement of 12 dB!!!
Here’s the results after the mobile broadband dongle is plugged into the mini “satellite” dish. It’s an improvement of 12 dB!!!

It measures -83dBm!!! That’s an improvement of 12dB!!!!! (The closer it is to zero the better the reception)

In English, that’s an improvement from a wavering 2-3 bars of reception to the maximum of 4 bars!!!

Just to be sure, I placed the mini “satellite” dish at the same place where my mobile broadband dongle would have been if I plugged it in directly to my laptop.

Amazing, isn’t it?

Normally, the dongle will transmit signals all over (i.e. 360 degrees, left/right, up/down). The strength of the transmitted signal will be quite weak. It might not even reach the mobile base station because of interference. Similarly, the base station broadcasts signals in the same way (all over). It’ll also be quite weak by the time it reaches your dongle.

With a concave wire mesh, the transmitted signal will be focused into a beam that will be shot in the general direction of where your “satellite” dish is pointing at. Likewise, weak signals from the base station will be focused and strengthened by the wire mesh, thereby improving your dongle’s reception of the base station’s signals.

That’s roughly how it works!

Well, I’m quite happy with this results. I’m gonna bring this mini “satellite” dish with me when I go out just to give it a try.

If you happen to see some eccentric guy with a medium-sized sieve mounted on a tripod using his MacBook Air in a cafe or library, that would be me. Do come up and say “Hi!” =D

So there you go! A low cost solution to mobile reception problems! You’ll never have to worry about cellular blind spots ever again!