IF YOU'RE tired of dropped calls, dead zones and poor data transfer speeds from your cell phone carrier, you may want to add a cell phone booster to your communications toolbox.

A fully arrayed cell phone booster system includes antennas and amplifiers needed to receive a weak signal, then amplify it into one that is more powerful. The systems can cost several hundred dollars or more. But manufacturers say the call quality improvement can be well worth the investment.

“A good system can mean doubling the coverage area” from a cell phone tower, says Laine Matthews of Wilson Electronics, a major cell phone booster equipment manufacturer. “In a mobile situation, we can extend the useful signal another 20 to 25 miles.”

Sometimes, adding a high-quality, external, vehicle rooftop antenna costing $30 to $40 may be enough to give your cell signal the extra oomph a mobile system needs, adds Matt Larson of wpsantennas.com, which markets cell phone booster equipment for both mobile and home/office installations. “We always suggest starting with an external antenna first, then adding an amplifier if it's needed,” he says.

Installing cell phone booster equipment in a home or office also can dramatically improve indoor call quality and boost data transfer speeds for cellular-based Internet. In both mobile and indoor installations, your cell phone battery charge typically lasts longer, too, since the phone's amplifier doesn't have to work as hard.

“One of the sayings around here is that with a landline system, you have to run inside to answer the phone. With a cell phone, you often have to run outside for the call,” Larson says.

Signal-boosting power

Depending on the model, a cell booster system can replicate the 3W signal-amplifying power of the bag phone. Even lower-powered amplifiers can dramatically improve cell signals, depending on the distance, terrain and obstructions they are attempting to counteract.

A typical cell phone booster system, whether designed for mobile or indoor use, includes an external antenna and a bidirectional amplifier for receiving and sending cell signals. Totally wireless systems include an interior antenna for rebroadcasting the amplified signal inside a vehicle or building. Less expensive systems skip the interior antenna. In that case, the cell phone is plugged into the amplifier.