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Can You Hear Me Now?

My home was a dead zone until I got a cell-signal amplifier

November 2011

During the opening round of the men's member-guest, I was walking down the first fairway when some idiot's cellphone rang. We have a few Wall Street types in our club, and they act as if the world would stop spinning if they turned off their BlackBerrys for an afternoon. I could feel my blood pressure climbing: The best weekend of the year, ruined by an inconsiderate moron! Then, after six or seven rings, I realized the phone was mine.

The reason I didn't recognize my ringtone is that I hardly ever get cell calls. My town is small, and it's full of signal-blocking hills. There are hot spots in my neighborhood -- the first half of the first fairway is one of them -- but unless I'm traveling I seldom use my cell except to do things like call my wife from the big grocery store (which is in a town with good service) to ask if broccolini is the same thing as broccoli rabe. (It's not.)

However, recently I saw a cable repairman talking on his cellphone in my yard, and I ran outside to ask him what the trick was. He explained that one of my neighbors had bought a device called a repeater, which amplifies and retransmits weak cell signals, and that some of the neighbor's boosted coverage was spilling onto my lawn. I found that I could make calls on my phone as long as I stood where the repairman had stood and didn't excitedly wave my arms. And that evening I discovered I could get three bars of 3G inside my house if I leaned my phone against the reading lamp on the bookcase on my side of the bed.

To increase my household coverage even more, I bought a gadget known as a femtocell, which is sort of a miniature personal cell tower. Mine, which looks like a router, is called the Verizon Wireless Network Extender. It doesn't amplify signals from cell towers; it uses my broadband Internet connection to access the national cell network, then wirelessly communicates with Verizon phones inside its range -- which is roughly the size of my house. Setting up the unit was easy. I plugged it in, used an Ethernet cable to connect it to my home network, and placed it near a window. (The window is recommended because the device requires a GPS link, which it uses primarily to determine my location if I dial 911.)

Both my kids live in apartments that don't have landlines, and both communicate mainly by sending text messages. As soon as my network extender was up and running, I texted the news to my son, who texted me back: "Very cool that you can text." So far, that's the only text I've received. But I feel as if I'm standing on the shore of a new world.

tech

The Verizon Wireless Network Extender is made by Samsung and sold through Verizon's website. It costs $250 -- which might seem like a little or a lot, depending on how you feel about cell service. There are no additional fees, and there's no setup unless you want to get complicated. I paid less than $100 for mine because I bought the previous model, which is no longer sold by Verizon but is available from several sellers, on Amazon and elsewhere. (The main difference between my model and the current one is that mine isn't 3G -- a nonissue for me, because I don't use my phone for data when I'm at home.) Sprint's femtocell, which is also made by Samsung, is called the Airave; as is often the case with phone companies, the pricing is incomprehensible. AT&T's version, called the 3G MicroCell, is made by Cisco and sells for $200. (You have to add specific phones to an Approved User List before they'll work, and you're limited to 10.)

Incidentally, the call I got at the member-guest was from my wife. What was I thinking? But taking the call kept me from getting in trouble that evening, so maybe cellphones on golf courses are a good thing, after all.

To watch DAVID OWEN upgrade the cell service in his house, visit golfdigest.com/go/owenvideo.

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