First look at the new Vodafone Sure Signal

 In femtocell

Update January 2010: Vodafone has updated their marketing name for this product and it is now called Vodafone Sure Signal.  They have started to heavily promote it around London on the tube and in other outdoor locations.  This post was first published in July 2009 just after it launched.  Since then it has pretty much worked without skipping a beat in my basement flat in central London.  My advice – if you are on Vodafone with poor 3G signal (or thinking of switching to Vodafone) AND have an unlimited/generous broadband plan – go grab one!

Ever the innovator, I have become one of the first people in Europe to have a commercially available femtocell (indoor 3G base station) in my home here in London.   Vodafone has just released their “Vodafone Access Gateway” product which is essentially a very low power 3G/HSDPA base station which connects to your standard broadband connection.

If you or your family are with Vodafone (it does not work with Vodafone MVNO customers on BT or Talk mobile), then they will get improved 3G coverage when close to the access gateway.

Quoting from the Vodafone website:

“The Vodafone Access Gateway service gives you a great 3G signal throughout your home, no matter where you live. All you need is a broadband line and the Gateway – a clever little box that’s simple to install.

You can even connect family and friends to the Gateway, as long as they’re with Vodafone. And up to four people can use it at once. So everyone gets the same great signal.”

The reason it is also called a femtocell is that the word femto means 10−15 or 0.000000000000001 ie – something VERY small – and this refers to the size of the 3G cell.

The femtocell has a lower signal than a WiFi home hub, and in tests in my home the WiFi signal travels further than the femtocell signal.

I have been following the commercial deployment of femtocells for some time, from when I was selling “home zone” style services based on location and was often asked about the differences between femtocells and what I was selling.

It is interesting to note that for the Vodafone UK launch, none of the UK based femto manufacturers such as ip.access or Ubiquisys were chosen for the home hardware.  My femtocell is manufactured by Sagem.

Setting it up is straight forward, but you need to be patient as nothing actually happens or appears to be happening for about 24 hours.

This is the procedure I followed once I had the device at home.

  1. Go to www.vodafone.com/gateway and register the gateway where you need to tell them your name, address, mobile number and the 15 digit gateway serial number. Here you can also enter the Vodafone mobile numbers you would like to share the gateway with (the gateway will only work with Vodafone mobiles – not MVNOs such as BT and Talk mobile that use Vodafone).

  2. Plug in the access gateway to the mains and a spare ethernet port on your home router.

  3. WAIT.  The lights will flash and the top power light will flash (the instructions say this indicates an error) for a long time.  In my case it was around 18 hours.  Then the lights will flash different sequences for some time.  You will know you are on the home stretch when the top light is steady green and the next one down (@) is flashing (means attempting to connect to Vodafone).

  4. An email will arrive to the address you provided during registration saying it will be ready in 24 hours (an SMS will also be sent to the mobiles you granted access in step 1).  Actually – it worked from the time the email arrived.

Why did I get an access gateway?

I live in a basement flat in an old Victorian home in central London.  As such, the mobile coverage in my house is poor or non existent on all networks.  If I do manage to receive a call while home, I have to move to the windows to make any sense to the caller.

During the run up to the commercial deployment of femtocells, there has been a lot of debate – much of it intelligently led by Dean Bubley over at disruptive wireless on the commercial benefits and applications for femtocells.

The femtocell does work as advertised and the calls made on it seem clear.  Downloading a YouTube video to my laptop using my HSDPA card, I was experiencing 1.2 Mb/s speeds – so it is HSDPA.

Other uses of femtocells have yet to be proven, such as sharing music files locally via the home network, and with many handsets now having WiFi, this may not appear as the main reason for getting one.  Home tariffs via femtocell are unlikely to be widespread as most operators have gone to a flat rate structure for voice and data, and even O2’s favourite place allows calls from a whole postcode without needing a femtocell to check you’re home.

My advice is if you are on Vodafone, have poor reception and an unlimited broadband plan then go and grab one.  Hopefully your experience will be smoother than mine.

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Based in London, Practical Futurist and former Global Managing Partner at IBM, Andrew Grill is a popular and sought-after presenter and commentator on issues around digital disruption, workplace of the future and new technologies such as blockchain. Andrew is a multiple TEDx and International Keynote Speaker.