Does Weather Affect Cell Phone Signal?

Nicholas Jones | April 23, 2018


Here’s a question shows up in our email in-box occasionally. “How does weather affect my cell phone reception?”

Weather can have a direct or an indirect effect on cell signals. An example of a direct effect would be a thunderstorm, when lightning causes electrical interference with cell signals.

An indirect effect of weather on cell reception could be caused by a change of season, say from winter to spring. In much of North America trees drop their leaves in winter.

In a single-story home or office building surrounded by trees, this could mean better indoor cell reception in winter when bare trees are less an obstacle to incoming and outgoing signals.

With the coming of spring the surrounding trees bud out and then produce leaves. This increased foliage can diffuse, weaken and even block cell signals traveling to and from the tower. Of course this can negatively affect cell reception for those inside the building, although not directly attributable to the weather conditions of the present day.

Why weather conditions can affect cell phone reception

Cellular network traffic is carried on radio waves, and so cell reception can be affected by any atmospheric condition that might similarly affect a terrestrial radio signal.

The biggest atmospheric culprit as far cell phone users are concerned is water vapor. Water impedes radio waves on the frequencies used by cellular networks. That means rain, snow, fog, clouds – even a bright, sunny day with high humidity – can cause cell reception to drop off.

This signal impedance happens because water conducts electricity, which allows water vapor in the atmosphere to reflect or refract radio waves. Engineers call this the “propagation delay effect.”

But for you and me it means the cell signal is (a) diluted by noise and (b) takes longer to get where it’s supposed to go (either to your phone or the tower) which we notice as reduced reception. Or it may not get there at all – in which case we would have no signal, or maybe an intermittent signal.

Here’s another effect of water on cell signals. Atmospheric water vapor can also reduce your cell reception by absorbing energy from radio waves. The absorbed energy is converted into heat – exactly the same thing your microwave oven does when you cook a bag of popcorn or warm up leftovers.

How other weather conditions can affect cell reception

Basically, any water in the atmosphere between your phone and the cell tower is not a good thing. But the negative impact on your cell reception can vary with specific weather conditions. Some are listed below.

Rain – Rainstorms are likely to have the greatest effect on cell reception because of the density of water vapor associated with them. The heavier the rain, the more likely it is to negatively affect your reception.

Lightning – Thunderstorms, aside from any rain, are a problem because as mentioned earlier lightning causes electrical interference. Of course a lightning strike can damage cell towers or other network equipment, affecting local cell service.

Snow and hail – These would likely have a lesser effect on your cell reception than rain because ice, in the form of snowflakes or hail stones, is less dense than water in liquid form. However, a particularly heavy snow can really refract radio waves.

Fog & clouds – Again, these would probably affect cell reception less than rain, but they can still scatter radio waves in localized areas.

Temperature – Heat or cold, exclusive of other weather conditions, should have no effect on your cell reception. Now, it may seem like outside temperatures affect your signal, but this is almost always the result of humidity changes that accompany warming or cooling temps.

Wind – Wind by itself, like temperature, should not affect your cell reception. But any of the above-described weather conditions associated with high winds certainly can cause reception issues. Of course high winds can also cause damage to cell network equipment and power lines, which could affect local service.

So there you have it – the very general how and why of weather effects on cellular reception. Now if your cell coverage drops during a weather event in your locale, you’ll understand what’s going on.


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