4 mins to read

Femtocell changes Auckland man's life

Fri, 20 Jan 2012

Where I live, I’ve often had lousy cellphone reception.

It’s likely always going to be that way. I live in a dip, close to celltower-hostile school, in a concrete house.

This week I did something about it, installing a Sure Signal device from Vodafone.

It’s literally changed my life, or at least my work life. Previously, I often had only 1 bar of reception, and had to go out to the car port and hop around to make a call. For important calls, where I didn’t want to risk wobbly reception, I drove a little bit up the street.

Now, I’ve got five bars of reception. As long as the person on the other end of the call’s got a good connection too, quality is as good as you get for a mobile.

Installation was literally plug-and-play, requiring only a basic level of computer savvy.

The paperback novel-sized Sure Signal plugs into your DSL broadband router (the widget that brings broadband to most homes) then transmits and receivers a 3G signal. In the telco-speak, the Sure Signal is known as a “femtocell”.

In other words it’s a mini cellsite, covering your home or workplace in a signal that can be used by 3G mobiles, tablets or data sticks (though only those with a Vodafone SIM card). The Sure Signal works by taking your 3G call (or mobile data session), then routing it over your landline broadband connection back to the carrier’s main network (data on the DSL backhaul leg does not count toward your landline broadband connection’s monthly cap – you don’t pay twice, a popular misconception on Twitter).

Telecom has shown me a femtocell (made by Alcatel Lucent, who also manufacture Vodafone’s Sure Signal), and conducted field trials. But at this point the carrier has not chosen to put a femtocell on the market.

Vodafone sells a business version of the Sure Signal, which costs $1034, supports up to eight people making mobile calls at once, and can transmit and receive a 3G signal over a 40 metre radius.

A home version costs $349, supports up to four simultaneous mobile sessions, and has a 20 metre radius.

Confidence to go mobile-only
So: I’m certainly thrilled I now have strong reception for my mobile.

It’s given me the confidence to go mobile-only, ditching my Telecom phone rental (IDC analyst Rosemary Spragg said around 4% of New Zealand homes have gone mobile only, putting us way behind Australia – 14% - and the US – around 25%. IDC expects the mobile-only trend to accelerate, however, to reach around 14% by 2015).

Perverse incentive
Yet there’s also a perverse element.

The worse your signal, the more likely you are to throw a little cash Vodafone’s way by buying a femtocell.

Simon Barker, who works for production company, told me he was disappointed with mobile reception at his home in the inner-city suburb of Eden Terrance (areas of which are patchy area for all carriers, thanks to Mt Eden looming over the landscape).

“I suffered from dropped calls and terrible 3G. I had clearly moved into a coverage black hole,” Mr Barker told NBR.

“I called Vodafone to see what they could do about getting me a Sure Signal unit. They started by saying we sell them and are $349.

“I replied that I shouldn't have to pay for them to supply basic service in the centre of our largest city. They put me on hold and came back - "we'll meet you half way". I said no, I pay $XX a month for a service I'm not receiving at acceptable levels. I have been a Vodafone customer for 10+ years and they should be keeping me happy - not forcing me to another provider.

“After another three-minute hold, they organised a $350 credit to my account and said to go into a retail store and pick one up. Success.”

A spokesman for Vodafone said he was unsure how many times a femtocell had been offered free. The company’s sales team looked at each case on a case-by-case basis.

(Incidentally, Mr Barker, who lives in terraced housing, was worried that Vodafone calls made by his neighbours through the wall could count against his plan. A Vodafone spokesman said a femotocell could be tied to a whitelist of certain cellphone numbers – as Vodafone does in the UK, where the carrier lacks a landline network. But Vodafone does not do that here. The spokesman reiterated that the DSL landline leg of a call make over a Sure Signal is zero-rated; mobile billing is tied to the SIM card on the handset or other gadget used to make a call or initiate a data session).

Late last year, Vodafone chief executive Russell Stanners told me Sure Signal sales had been strong.

He wouldn’t give detailed numbers, but said femtocell sales had been in the thousands.

Look for more femtocell action in the future.

Mr Stanners saw a strong role for the technology as Vodafone, in partnership with Telecom, expands  coverage outside cities under the Rural Broadband Initiative. A femtocell could be used in a rural home or business, with a wireless internet connection used to bridge the gap back to the main network.

Vodafone’s rural partner, Farmside, also sees potential for femtocells to provide cellular coverage that’s routed back to the main network via satellite.

Many carriers, worldwide, have spoken about femocells becoming a key part of their networks - including urban areas - as they upgrade to 4G/LTE networks.

Leaving aside the "who-pays?" argument, on a technical level it makes perfect sense. Femtocells are an excellent way to fill the gaps that will always exist in any mobile network.

Incidentally, another objection frequently expressed on Twitter is concern over emissions. Vodafone says a Sure Signal's emissions are lower than that produced by the DSL routers that feature in most homes (and if emissions are a concern about the mobile world in general, read this and this).

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Femtocell changes Auckland man's life