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Cause of Slow Data Speed is Signal Quality, not just Signal Strength

Sep 12, 2019

Cause of Slow Data Speed is Signal Quality, not just Signal Strength

What is the reason for slow data speed? Is it "signal strength" alone? Or is "signal quality" a major factor? What is the difference between signal strength and quality? If you have never considered these possibilities, you're in for a surprise.

We have all had those moments when we're desperate to make a call, surrounded by walls, and frustrated by a signal strength bar maddeningly flickering between one and none.

It is understandable, with the evidence right there on every cell phone display, that most cell phone users have come to consider signal strength to be the most critical metric for call quality and stability.

However, there is another measurement which is more useful for determining the quality of cellular connections. It is often referred to as signal quality, but it is more helpful to think of it as signal speed.

The Difference Between Signal Strength and Signal Quality/Speed.

Cell phone owners will happily use their phones with barely a glance at how many bars of strength the phone is displaying. It is only when videos are rudely interrupted by buffering, calls refuse to go through, or Instagram posts refuse to update that they deign to check the signal strength.

Most cell phone operators will consider having four bars always to be better than two. However, in real-world conditions, it is possible to receive a better signal (and faster speeds) when only two bars are displayed. A better understanding of Signal-to-Noise Ratio (SNR) should help to clear up any confusion.

Understanding Signal to Noise Ratio.

Signal-to-Noise ratio is a technical subject, but in simple terms, it can be summed up as the amount of cellular signal making it through background noise.

A Signal-to-Noise Ratio is measured in dB, and larger numbers are better. When the number goes into the negative, it indicates a signal is being lost in a sea of static. Advances in cellular technology have made it possible for modern LTE devices to work surprisingly well, even through negative SNR numbers.

Working to improve SNR via a professionally designed cell phone signal booster system can often result in bigger speed gains than attempts at boosting signal strength.

Discussing SNR as it relates to audio creates a useful analogy. Let us say you're a supervisor in a busy warehouse, and machines and vehicles are creating a lot of background noise.

If the background noise is 50 dB, and you are trying to communicate with a warehouse worker at 30 dB, you won't be able to hear each other over the background noise.

Some information may get through if you converse at 60 dB, but you will get better results if you can raise your voices to 90 dB. You will be mostly shouting at each other, but at least you will both be understood.

If all the sound in the warehouse were to go silent suddenly, you would be able to converse in whispers (a weak single). The message would still get across because there is no background noise to overcome.

Increase the level of background noise where you must shout louder and louder, and you will eventually get to a point where even the shouting will be difficult to understand.

At higher levels of interference, it gets harder to separate the signal from the noise, and it is a challenge faced by every cell phone signal booster.

Signal-to-noise ratio in cellular communications is not the same as the noise in a warehouse or a room full of partygoers. Instead, we are referring to the electromagnetic noise that is all around us and can be a consequence of human-made signals, or electromagnetic fields created by nature.

It is the background electromagnetic noise our signal must push through. Therefore, a higher SNR to noise ratio will always create a better-quality signal and improve data speeds. No more painstakingly weak cellular data speed...

Busting the Signal Strength Versus Signal Quality Myth.

Cell phone users are always happy to see 5-bars of signal strength. Most are blissfully unaware that the familiar icon is not always the best indicator of signal quality.

As we have seen, higher SNRs will always result in faster data speeds. Sadly, you can rarely achieve respectable data speeds when the best you can get is a single bar of signal strength. The reason is that low SNR will often correlate with low signal strength.

If you are in an area where there is lots of background (electromagnetic) noise, you will also experience low bandwidth despite being able to receive a strong signal. It is for this reason that boosting the SNR will provide better gains in cellular internet speed.

Let us look at it another way. If you are already at maximum signal strength but still have slow speeds, then your only option is to improve the signal quality because your signal strength has no more room to move. Now you know the truth about cellular signal strength versus speed (quality).

Putting it All Together.

Now that you have a clearer understanding of how signal strength is not an essential quality of a signal, you are in a more informed place for deciding how to improve your data speeds. Now you know why chasing signal strength on your cell phone is not the best way to faster data.

Your goal should be to focus on network speeds, rather than on how many signal strength bars are shown on your phone.

As a side note, every cell phone service uses their own algorithms to calculate how many bars are displayed, so it is an even less reliable system than you first imagined.

Cell phone signal boosters use three main components to boost the quality of your signal. An antenna situated on the outside of a building (donor antenna) collects the signal from the outside and passes it through to internal antennas on the inside of the building.

When a call is made, the reverse happens. The antennas on the inside receive the signal from the phone and send it out to the world via the outside antenna.

Other systems will use directional antennas pointed towards the strongest source of the signal. The signal is boosted and sent through to cellular devices inside the building, which are connected via a direct physical connection.

You will make the best gains when you use high-quality components, and keep cable runs to a minimum. Longer cables have increased resistance and signal strength is reduced the further it must travel along the cable.

The Bottomline.

Is your cell phone data speed low despite installing a cell phone signal booster system? You're not alone. While some cell phone booster systems amplify the signal strength, they will also amplify the signal noise to an extent. The key is to filter the noise to boost cellular data speed while simultaneously increasing signal strength. Submit details to schedule a site survey so we can show you how we can improve your wireless data speed to maximum levels. With always fast cell phone data speeds, you and your employees, clients or cutomers will save precious time with lightning fast downloads on any carrier's mobile network.


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  • I hate when I run into pokey download speeds due to a bad signal. I know there are a variety of things that can screw up your signal ranging from bad weather, what your house is made of, or having an older phone. The problem sometimes if figuring out just how well your phone is at receiving a signal so I imagine this signal quality is another way to look into what’s causing the problem.

    Danny Waldorf on
  • After reading a few of the blogs here, I’ve picked up on the concept that pokey download rates and poor audio quality can be caused by weak signals. I didn’t know the reason also depends on signal quality though. Your explanation of signal to noise ratio was an eye-opener though. Based on other blogs, I know signal bars are notoriously unreliable but I didn’t know dB is a way to measure SNR. Glad you posted this.

    Jackie Q. on

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