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What affects your mobile coverage? (And can you improve it?)

Poor network coverage sucks, but in most cases you don’t have to put up with it.

Alex Kidman
Aug 18, 2023
Icon Time To Read4 min read

Poor mobile coverage leads to less than stellar speed when online, bad call quality and dropped text messages. It’s no fun for anyone, but understanding what affects your coverage can help you understand what you can do in order to improve matters.

The reasons for poor coverage can be variable, but there’s a definite hierarchy here in terms of what can affect your phone’s mobile reception.

1: How close is the nearest mobile phone tower?

The single biggest factor that affects your mobile experience is your relative proximity to a nearby mobile phone tower or transmitter. Mobile phone networks rely on radio waves, and their strength drops the further away you get from that network tower. This is most noticeable in regional and rural Australia, and many locals may well be aware of the exact point where the phone coverage stops just outside town as a result.

So what can you do about this short of moving closer to the nearest tower?

Quickly checking online may point you to the idea of getting and installing a mobile signal repeater for easy and quick network quality improvements.

However, and I cannot stress this enough, nearly every single mobile signal repeater you could buy online is going to be entirely illegal to operate. We’re not just talking a naughty-naughty-slap-on-the-wrist kind of matter either, with penalties for using one illicitly stretching up into the million dollar range with lengthy prison terms to boot. Don’t believe us? Check out the ACMA’s page on illegal radio equipment here.

Under no circumstances should you just buy a mobile phone repeater or booster online from some random seller and start using it.

Which isn’t to say that there’s no market for repeaters at all in Australia. It’s just that they’re very tightly regulated to ensure that everything going on in Australia’s airwave space doesn’t break networks more widely. As an example, if you’re a Telstra customer you can get an approved repeater installed on your property, subject to inspection and approval. This isn’t free, with the cheapest Telstra GO repeater running at $34/month over 24 months, plus your plan costs.

Powertec sells a range of approved repeaters for Telstra, Optus or Vodafone customers, but it’s a very good idea to talk to your telco before chasing down installing one of these, as they will still require their approval to operate on their networks.

2: Is your phone still up to scratch?

Not all mobile phones are created equal in terms of antenna quality, placement or even the networks they’ll connect to. You may be rocking an older phone that can only work on 3G networks, and that’ll naturally limit your speeds – and you should seriously look at replacing it soon, as the clock is ticking on 3G networks in Australia in a serious way – but even 4G and some 5G phones can have wildly variable network pickup rates.

So what can you do about this? Both Telstra and Optus have options for phones that they’ve tested for superior long distance network pickup. Telstra refers to these as “Blue Tick” phones, while Optus’ version is called a “Top Pick for Regional Coverage”.

This doesn’t mean that you can only use those phones in regional areas; the same antennae that make them a good choice for those living more remotely also make them quite desirable for more metropolitan usage as well.

Here’s a selection of Telstra and Optus phones on plans to pick from:

3: What other environmental factors are in play?

The radio signals that mobile phone networks rely on are highly regulated, not just by the laws of the land in relation to repeaters above, but also by the laws of physics.

There’s a whole host of factors that can play havoc with mobile phone signal quality, sometimes on a temporary basis, while others are rather more permanent.

If you look at the coverage maps of the three major telcos you’ll see some areas that don’t have coverage, but what’s more pertinent here is that those coverage maps nearly always talk about outdoor coverage, not indoors.

Most of us spend at least part of the day indoors, if not a lot of it, but it’s the buildings that we inhabit that can absolutely wreck a mobile signal. Interior beams, power lines, thick concrete walls – none of it is friendly to the propagation of good mobile signals.

Then there’s other devices that may intrude on the frequencies of mobile networks. These are less common these days – and a good reason why mobile repeaters are generally illegal to use – but a dodgy electrical signal from another source can also be a mobile phone signal inhibitor. The same is true for some weather conditions; not just the lightning striking the mobile phone tower, but also the electromagnetic effects of that storm as well.

For some of these factors it’s a question of time or location. Wait out the storm, or move out of the multi-storey underground carpark and you’ll probably find a better mobile signal. Equally, moving closer to a window can bear rich fruit if you’re getting a bad signal within your home or office.

Still, you can’t realistically rebuild your home or workplace to suit mobile phone signals, so in many cases there’s not so much you can do. It may be worth checking with your telco around their mobile phone tower plans in your area, as the introduction of a new tower can often lead to huge improvements not just in coverage area but also coverage quality. Those new towers are also highly regulated, so this isn’t a simple step, and you may have to wait to see if there’s anything planned for your location.

One way around the problems of poor mobile coverage that can absolutely help you out is connecting to Wi-Fi in your area. Not only will that enable data services as you’d expect, but it can also open up Wi-Fi calling on your phone if your network and plan support it.

The other way to improve matters for your mobile coverage is to consider switching networks. Not all network coverage is equal, and it’s worth carefully considering if a switch in networks might lead to a big improvement in your mobile coverage. Telstra’s got the best reputation for network quality in this respect, but you’re not stuck just handing over your dollars to the big T in every case.

Here’s a selection of Telstra-network-based MVNO plans for you to consider:

Alex Kidman
Written by
Alex Kidman
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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