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Vodafone Access Gateway / Sure Signal (femtocell) Review

What Mobile
July 9, 2009

 

Update: Jan 18th 2010; Vodafone re-launches the Access Gateway as the Vodafone Sure Signal with a lower price (see end of review).

 

Forget the supposed-signal boosters that were once sold and acted as repeaters, or any number of other ‘snake-oil’ solutions to getting your more signal. The only proper solution is to change network, possibly change your handset (but, if you were in such a marginal area that the handset was make-or-break, chances are the coverage is still insufficient) or ask nicely for a base station to be built near you.

Now, there’s a more sensible option. The Vodafone Access Gateway does things properly. The device, which looks like an ordinary wireless router, is effectively a home base station. Rather than boosting the signal to your nearest cell site, it connects to your existing broadband router. It then uses your broadband connection to route calls and data so you can enjoy full signal strength in and around the home or office.

There is a price to pay. You’re not only expected to pay £160 for the gateway (or £5 per month if you’d prefer to pay monthly, although Vodafone may include it with certain tariffs in the future), but will also need a fixed line for broadband. In the last year or so, mobile operators have been trying to convince us to ditch home broadband and switch to mobile broadband, so who would have thought that one of them was now asking us to use a fixed line to support their network?

In case you’re worried, you aren’t going to find your base station being used by anyone passing that’s on Vodafone. Every user has to be pre-registered (a process done online and taking up to 24 hours to activate for each number added) and you can only have a maximum of four users using the gateway at any one time, so the bandwidth demands should be fairly minimal in most cases.

A total of 32 mobile numbers can be added to your approved list, which should be enough for any small office. If you do need more, you’ll need to invest in another gateway. Bear in mind that Vodafone requires a broadband speed of at least 1 megabit to operate comfortably, more if any of the users are uploading or downloading data.

Having explained how everything works, there’s not really anything else to say. And that’s a good thing because it simply proves how simple it is. It’s no harder than, say, taking a new DVD player out of a box and plugging it in to your TV. Actually, it’s easier! The process consists of, as shown by Vodafone’s own ‘Quick setup’; 1) Connect router to gateway 2) Connect power supply. And that’s (almost) it. The only bit work of work is to register the Access Gateway via the website and enter the Vodafone number(s) that you want to give access permission to.

There’s no complex configuration required on your router, unless you’ve enabled any extra security options (and if you’ve done this, you’ll be more than capable of giving access to the gateway), and within minutes you should see the signal increase on your mobile phone as it connects to the gateway instead of the mobile network. A flashing LED on the Access Gateway tells you when you’re connected, and flashes quicker if more than one phone is using it. When you move away from the Access Gateway, you’ll simply transfer on to the mobile network as usual. It really couldn’t be any easier if you tried.

If you need to improve coverage, there’s no other way to do it as effectively – but the question now is whether it’s worth the money. You could argue that, out of principle, you shouldn’t be paying to fill the gaps in the network – but that doesn’t stop you missing calls or texts. If you’re in business and need to be in constant contact, it’s the ideal solution and probably a lot cheaper than changing network (and that’s assuming another network is going to solve the problem).

Even if ordinary 3G coverage is acceptable, the Access Gateway gives you a solid and dependable connection that doesn’t fluctuate based on atmospheric conditions or the number of users on the same cell site (although it will obviously fall over if your broadband connection goes down). This means you could still just about justify a purchase simply to obtain a base station that will never be congested.

The device itself is made by Sagem and it’s quite likely that you’ll be seeing many more femtocells being released in the near future, and given time, at a much lower price. You will almost certainly see the likes of Netgear and Belkin releasing wireless routers that also operate as femtocells, doing away with the need for another box sitting on a desk or shelf. But that’s then and this is now.

Vodafone should be commended for being first to market, and although it’s not likely to be selling in huge numbers, it is the most effective way of solving the issue of mobile phone coverage.

 

In the box:

Vodafone Access Gateway Femtocell unit
Ethernet Cable
Power Adapter
Quick Start user guide

 

Pricing:

£50-120 depending on tariff, with monthly option available
May be supplied free of charge on some tariffs

 

Availability:

Vodafone stores or online – on sale now

 

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