My father-in-law lives in a small town in Kentucky with less than 900 people in Amish country despite not being Amish. The problem is that there is no real Internet provider where he lives.  There is a local WI-MAX provider and there is satellite Internet available but neither of these are really preferable and are more or less the last type of option available to extremely rural folks. If cable or DSL were an option we’d have taken it.

My father-in-law is also on my family plan with Verizon. He has an iPad 2 and an iPhone 5c and no computer. The thought of providing him with a cell phone and access to my cell plan was to keep him from having the expense of a home phone line and his own Internet connection. Unfortunately, not only does he live in Amish country but he lives in a valley in Amish country. T-Mobile and Sprint don’t work there and both AT&T and Verizon only get 1-bar of signal at best. Did I mention that his house (built by the Amish) is made of metal? This essentially acts as a Faraday Cage resulting in no cell signal inside his house. He has satellite Internet but it’s pricey and when we gather for family events at his house he’s easily driven over his quota and his Internet is cut off until the end of the billing cycle. Not cool at all.

Everything is an engineering problem so I decided I was going to fix this.

The first thing I decided to do was find a device that could help us get a better signal. Turns out there’s a company called zBoost that makes just the thing I was looking for. I picked up the biggest, baddest Verizon extender they make: the ZB575-XV. Promising up to 5,500 sq. feet (up to 77 dB gain) of coverage I’d be crazy not to try it. I could’ve picked up the model that only provided 2,500 sq. feet but if ever a situation called for the best solution I could find, a metal structure in Amish country in the middle of a valley was it. I’d never used one of these before. Did you know you have to register your cell booster with your cell provider?

zBoost partners with InstallerNet so I could easily pay a local company $300 plus materials to come out and install the antenna.  As I live near Atlanta this was an attractive option so I set something up. When I talked to the company, they were pretty much going to just put the antenna on the roof of the structure with not much of a mount. This bothered me for a couple of reasons. First, the instructions clearly state that for the best performance you need 15 feet of vertical separation between the transmitter and the antenna. Second, it says to keep the antenna at least three feet away from metal structures. A simple mount on my father-in-law’s roof would fail on both counts. The installer assured me he’s done many of these and that my fears were not warranted but I decided to hold off and use InstallerNet as a last resort. Having spent $400 on this solution so far and living so far away, I figured I had one shot to get this right so I set out to decide how to install this.

First, I needed something to mount the antenna on. I wanted a ham-radio tower for this. Did you know those things run between $1,300-5,000? Me neither. My buddy had a great idea: buy a cheap telescopic flagpole online so that’s exactly what I did. It cost less than $100 and was 25 feet tall.

The next thing I did was locate all the cell towers closest to my father-in-law using the site cellreception.com.

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As luck would have it, the closest tower was 2.1 miles from my father-in-law’s house (the dot in the center of the map is the closest tower). Using the satellite function in Google Maps I determined which side of his house faced the tower and then I’d have to find the point with the fewest amount of trees where we could get a signal.

It didn’t take much to mount the external antenna to the flagpole.

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The next step was to identify where to put the antenna. The map indicated his garden was the best spot. It was fairly clear of trees at that height and was the closest point to the antenna within the 75 ft RG-6 cable length (the maximum recommended amount of RG-6 coaxial cable for the device is 75 ft so that’s what we used).

On a Saturday in late August in Kentucky we ended up doing something like this for most of an afternoon …

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My brother-in-law moved the makeshift antenna, my nephew held the cable to keep it steady, my sister-in-law held the transmitter attached to an extension cable and I monitored signal strength from my iPhone. The closer to the house we came, the worse the signal got. My intuition was right: We’d have to keep the antenna away from his house.

Once I was fairly confident this was the spot, we got an auger and dug a hole and secured the flagpole in concrete.

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We placed the transmitter inside and the results were promising …

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Next step was to run a speed test …

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Success! Not only was this much faster than his satellite Internet but since it wasn’t making a roundtrip to the stratosphere and back the latency was sub-100ms! One unexpected benefit was that the family members who were on AT&T and T-Mobile also found that their phones now worked in the structure. The device is specifically designed for Verizon frequencies but nevertheless this was something we observed. There were two T-Mobile phones and both had 3-4 bars of signal. If one of the T-Mobile phones made a call, the other would drop to 1-bar of signal which is something that didn’t happen with the Verizon phones but considering they had no coverage before this was definitely an improvement. Rising tides do lift all boats.

The next order of business was to order a Verizon hotspot: a Verizon Jetpack MiFi 6620L

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I ordered one of these, tied it to my account, changed the SSID and password to match the wifi network he already had, and sent it to him. Now he could plug this in and turn off the satellite Internet and the experience would be seamless. Since it is crucial that he have phone service that is always available, we also acquired an uninterruptible power supply for the transmitter and wifi hotspot to plug into. The UPS unit is way overpowered for his needs but since power is sometimes spotty in Amish country we need no excuses for this not to work.

There would be a couple of changes that would be necessary to make. The 75 ft. limitation of the RG-6 coaxial cable would only barely get the transmitter into the house. If you use RG-11, you can go 120 ft. Unfortunately, it was near impossible to find RG-11 cable in the area so I had to order it from Amazon. It’s somewhat pricey but it would allow us to get the transmitter to a higher location in the house with more line of sight to common places of Internet and cell phone usage. I will also likely upgrade the omnidirectional antenna on the transmitter with a more powerful one just to ensure that the entire structure gets as much signal as possible. Getting the signal inside the house was a big help but metal walls still act as an impediment. I also worry that family members who visit might try to stream Netflix or the like and end up pushing me over my data limit. If it ends up happening, I’ll install a proxy server / firewall running on a Raspberry Pi that blocks most streaming sites but let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.