Ever find yourself monitoring your cell camera and notice a drop in signal strength or maybe worse yet...lose signal all together? We've learned a ton through both through product development and running a large number of cellular trail cameras over the last handful of years. With that, we have certainly had our fair share of mishaps...some explainable and some we were simply left scratching our heads. They say, curiosity killed the cat but in our case it left us more educated.
One of the most common issues with cellular trail cameras is loss of signal or varying signal strength. At times it can be the camera or power source related, other times it's not so black and white. From our research and experience, here our the top 4 external items that can affect the signal strength of your cellular trail camera.
Understanding that your cellular trail camera moves data to the established cellular network through the environment via radio frequencies/radio waves, RF, is paramount. Also, understanding how environmental factors inhibit or alter RF is key to understanding how weather may be impacting your cellular trail camera signal.
Precipitation/Moisture - Any water in the atmosphere between your cell camera and the communicating tower is not an ideal thing. Water impedes the radio waves used to transmit data on frequencies used by cellular network providers. That boils down to rain, snow, fog, humidity, and clouds can all cause a decrease in cell signal. Engineers call this the "propagation delay affect", where the water vapors reflect or refract radio waves due to H2O conductive properties. The more dense the water vapor, the worse the effect is....So heavy rain is not a good thing
Lightning - Aside from the common associated rain shower, lightning presents issues from electrical interference. While it's rare for a single bolt to affect your cell signal, ongoing storms due have the potential for interference. There's also the obvious... a lightning strike of an actual tower. While towers are outfitted with lightning rods and extensive grounding systems, maintenance of these items are typically foregone by tower owners causing more common outages than most people realize.
Knowing that cell cameras are moving data via RF it's pretty obvious any physical dense object is going to impede communication abilities. So, we're going to skip over the obvious here....harsh elevation changes, buildings, etc.
A common thing we see occurs around spring green up. Folks have great signal all through winter, great signal into spring and then all of sudden the camera slowly loses signal. Heavy canopied forest can dramatically cut down on your trail camera's ability to gain signal. Luckily, this also works in our advantage come fall when foliage begins to fall. One good rule of thumb we tell our customers when placing cell cameras in the summer months is that if you have 2 or 3 bars of service under a heavy canopy, you will likely have better signal throughout the fall when the leaves start to drop. Another great way to combat the loss of signal due to heavy canopies is to add an external high gain antenna to your cell camera. There are a multitude of options out there including the Exodus directional antenna specifically for Verizon 4G and LTE networks, be sure what you are purchasing is compatible with your cell camera.
Peak usage hours are king here. Many of you likely already experience this with your mobile phone. Maybe it's slower speeds when browsing the web on your smartphone, it may take longer to send texts or phones, or maybe you just tend to drop calls. The bottom line is every cellular network has some type of "traffic" capacity and during certain hours of the day, peak usage. Cellular provider try to plan ahead and provide "overflow" networks, limit certain devices during these times, and/or limit speeds. This is similar to "data throttling" on mobile devices when monthly data limits are reached. A direct quote from AT&T..
"If a lot of devices are using mobile data at once, it can put a strain in our network. This is called network congestion, and we may have to slow your data speed to keep everyone connected."
Looking at consumer behavior peak usage hours are typically mid morning and even hours...the exact time frame whitetails are most apt to move in daylight. Not an ideal circumstance for those of us counting on cellular trail cameras to transmit images to us. While slowing down speeds will not affect your cellular trail camera due to such small file sizes being transmitted, obviously if cellular network providers cap connection you will be up the creek.
Ever have a camera lose service out of the blue and then a few days later reconnect? While it's not a very common phenomenon, it does happen. Cellular networks do maintenance, it's inevitable. Unfortunately, it's next to impossible to verify if you're loss of signal is from downed equipment or camera failure. If you're tech savvy enough to use the built in dBm tool on your mobile phone you can do a quick test at the camera's location and know. There are also 3rd party apps like Opensignal and CellMapper that can be installed on your phone that can also report available networks and signal strength at your locations. Keep in mind, most maintenance outages are short lived so your response and in field testing would have to fairly time sensitive to have any kind of accuracy.
While everything here does affect your cellular trail camera signal, don't be super paranoid about your cellular trail camera failing with every weather event. If you notice a lack of performance from your cell camera just keep in mind the constants...weather events, an increase of foliage, and network congestion. With these events, normal cell camera performance should come back after a period of time and if they do not...well then you know you have a different cell signal issue at hand.
Author: Chad Sylvester Exodus Co-Founder/Owner