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Mobile signal boosters: What are they, and do they work?

Mobile signal boosters are contraband for a reason

Alex Kidman
Jun 21, 2024
Icon Time To Read4 min read

What is a mobile signal booster?

Mobile networks are great, right up until the point … where they’re not. 

Typically that’s because you’ve ended up in an area with poor reception, whether that’s a fixed location – your home or business having a lousy signal – or an on-the-go situation, because you’ve travelled around this wide brown land, especially to more remote or rural areas.

While the big mobile networks run by Telstra, Optus and Vodafone do work to reduce the number of mobile blackspots and poor coverage areas, there’s a lot of Australia to cover, and only so much mobile spectrum to go around. That’s where you may have seen mention of mobile signal boosters, devices manufactured to improve your mobile reception in either fixed locations or on the move.

The term mobile signal booster is used a tad interchangeably between two different classes of devices. Firstly there’s mobile signal repeaters, which very much do what their names suggest. A mobile signal repeater takes an existing mobile signal and repeats it outwards, typically to multiple devices.

A mobile signal booster is a more singular device, intended to boost the mobile signal for a single phone. It’s not helpful that a lot of retailers use these terms interchangeably, but there’s a much bigger problem with mobile signal boosters in Australia.

Are mobile signal boosters legal in Australia?

Short answer: No.

Long answer: The Australian Communications & Media Authority specifically prohibits the use of Mobile Signal Boosters in Australia, with the most recent declaration being the snappily named Telecommunications (Prohibition of Mobile Phone Boosters) Declaration 2021.

You might be thinking that’s a bit unfair if you’re in an area with poor mobile reception, but the reality here for mobile signal boosters is that they can actually make matters much worse for most mobile phone users, interfering with the spectrum usage already in play. The act lays this rather clearly for a legal document:

(2) The integrity of the telecommunications networks by means of which public mobile telecommunications services are supplied is at risk from the operation of mobile phone boosters because mobile phone boosters can substantially interfere with, disrupt or disturb public mobile telecommunication services by jeopardising the quality and coverage of carriage services. This can cause inconvenience to, or loss of business for, mobile phone users.

(3)    The disruption caused to public mobile telecommunications services by mobile phone boosters can also impede access to emergency call services from mobile phones, which creates a risk to public health and safety.

(Source: Telecommunications (Prohibition of Mobile Phone Boosters) Declaration 2021)

The short form there if you still don’t like legalese is that the use of a Mobile Signal Booster can mess up the mobile network, making it worse for everyone, and could make it harder for someone to make an emergency call when needed. 

This isn’t just a theoretical matter with no risk to you, either; penalties for using a mobile signal booster or supplying one can range up to $1.5 million in fines and up to 8 years behind bars

However, while Mobile Signal Boosters are specifically prohibited, Mobile Signal Repeaters aren’t, within some very strict guidelines. 

Like Mobile Signal Boosters, incorrect use or use of incompatible repeaters can seriously interfere with mobile signals and reception over a wider area, so what you need is either authorisation from your mobile provider to use a specific repeater, or to buy one of a very limited number of repeaters that don’t require that written authorisation; a so-called “exempt repeater”.

Repeaters become exempt if a telecommunications carrier – in the Australian context, Telstra, Optus or TPG/Vodafone – applies for that exemption, and to date the list of exempt devices is relatively slim. 

The ACMA keeps a list of exempt repeaters here, and if you’re interested it’s absolutely vital that you check that list before purchasing. Researching this article uncovered literally dozens of online retailers offering repeaters and boosters to Australian customers that are in no way exempt; using those despite the claims made on those sites would be an absolute contravention of the law and could land you in serious legal hot water.

Then again, one of the sites we checked also claimed that one of Australia’s biggest mobile networks was called “Telstr”, so that might give away that they’re perhaps not checking all the details anyway, legal or not. 

Essentially speaking, if you’re in the market for a repeater, the first step should be talking to your telco about your needs and concerns, because without either their express permission or the use of an exempt repeater, you’re breaking the law.

Can I get a mobile signal booster from my telco?

You can’t get a booster – they’re illegal, remember?– but it is possible to get mobile signal repeaters through Telstra specifically. 

While Optus has a number of repeaters on the approved list – indicating that it’s happy for those models to work on its network – and Vodafone/TPG have none at the time of writing, Telstra goes a little further offering “Telstra Go Repeaters” for either stationary  or mobile use.

For mobile repeaters, Telstra sells its Telstra Go repeater kits in a variety of configurations, with pricing starting (at the time of writing) from $864, while its stationary repeaters are typically offered on contract terms, though they are also sold outright after consulting with Telstra about your specific repeater needs.

This does highlight the other challenge with mobile signal repeaters, because they are not inexpensive, to put it mildly. 

After a different way to improve your mobile experience? One simple way that can help is to switch providers and possibly networks. Here’s a range of affordable SIM-only mobile plans across all three mobile networks that include at least 25GB of included data per month:

Alex Kidman
Written by
Alex Kidman is some kind of word-generating AI from the future that somehow worked out how to sneak back in time to 1998 to start its journalism career. Across that time, including editorial stints at ZDNet, CNET, Gizmodo, PC Mag and Finder, as well as contributions to every major tech masthead, nobody has quite managed to figure out this deeply held secret. Let’s keep it between us, OK?

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