As Senior Product Marketing Manager, Lee has been responsible for the Vodafone UK femtocell (now renamed Sure Signal) since before its commercial launch. Here, he shares his experience of the Sure Signal femtocell, explains the reasons behind their customer proposition and promises market promotion activity that nobody will miss.
What has been Vodafone’s experience of commercially offering femtocells to the UK market?
Sales of the Vodafone Access Gateway have gone well since we launched six months ago and are ahead of our initial forecast. We’ve sold them to a good mix of new and existing customers, geographically spread across both rural and urban areas of the UK.
Predominantly, these have been bought by contract customers – largely due to the price. Where these are installed in homes, other residents including prepaid users typically share the femtocell.
The vast majority of units have been sold with only a small percentage being fully subsidised. More customers bought them as a one-off purchase (rather than for a monthly fee) than we expected. Sales have been split between our retail stores, telesales and online channel in a similar mix to our other products.
What has the customer feedback been like?
Overwhelmingly positive! At the outset, we weren’t quite sure what the response would be, so we are very pleased. Some customers have even told us the product is lifechanging for them.
There were some technical difficulties at the time of the initial launch. How have Vodafone addressed them?
We wanted to make the product available to any customer on DSL broadband from any provider. We’ve captured what we’ve learnt during earlier trials and from our commercial launch in July 209 so that we can reuse this with our technical support teams. Our experience was that some specific routers and broadband modems required additional configuration, which we now understand.
What other operational improvements have you made?
Our online capability has been substantially enhanced. We found that most calls to technical support were to add or remove numbers from the customer’s “whitelist” of permitted users. We introduced an online facility for customers to directly and quickly update their “whitelist” of permitted mobile phones within minutes. This has freed up considerable resource and allowed us to respond more quickly to other enquiries. We’ve also provided greater clarity of information for our customers on the website and created an eForum alongside the 1 on 1 support. The most common questions are directly answered online.
Why do you use a “whitelist” of permitted mobile phone numbers and can customers switch this off?
We conducted significant market research including focus groups before launching the product. We found that our customers wanted a whitelist to ensure they were in control of who had access to their femtocell.
We may look to exploit open access [Ed Note: Femtocells without a whitelist] as a technical solution in the future, outside of the home/domestic product.
Your market proposition is entirely around solving poor coverage problems. Why not promote other benefits of femtocells?
We know that poor coverage blackspots are an issue for all operators. Vodafone’s approach has been to tackle this head-on and give our customers a choice. It’s not just a rural issue – there can be technical reasons for poor coverage in urban areas. We’ve explained this on the Sure Signal website, including factors such as the material used to construct buildings, the local topography or type of phone being used.
Our customers just want to be able to make and receive calls and are quite emotive about coverage and signal quality. Data performance and coverage is a more complex issue which may become more important for femtocells in the future.
Vodafone’s femtocell only works with 3G phones and not 2G GSM only. Has this been a problem?
We know there are types of 2G GSM femtocell available in the market. However, the vast majority of new handsets being sold today are 3G capable. This new technology allows us some future-proofing. It also encourages our customers to play with and try out the latest mobile internet features, opening up new opportunities.
An important part of our pre-sales process ensures we fully explain the compatibility with 3G phones.
Have you seen any issues with internet broadband or ISPs?
The quality of the broadband internet link connected to the femtocell is key to its performance.
We provide a pre-sales check of the broadband line speed and recommend a minimum speed of 1Mbit/s. That’s not to say it won’t work at slower speeds – some of our customers have successfully got it working at much lower rates – but it may not support the full 4 concurrent calls/sessions in such cases.
Is the femtocell available for enterprise customers?
The new pricing also applies to small business customers – it’s the same offer. We’ve seen SOHO and homeworkers adopt this as a great solution, but the consumer market is driving sales at the moment.
We don’t have a different technical solution for enterprise customers today. [Ed Note: Peter Kelly, Vodafone Enterprise Director has said there is ongoing development to make femtocell more applicable to SME’s]
What are your future product plans? Can we expect any new formats, features etc this year?
We’ll continue to develop the product and innovate to meet our customers’ needs. We’ve looked at a combined router/modem/femtocell product, but research indicates that customers today are not yet ready to replace their existing modems – they will want to try it out first. I would expect this to change in the future.
What’s happening with this month’s Sure Signal launch?
From a marketing perspective, you can expect to see a really strong push out to the market. Our new product name (Sure Signal) and attractive pricing is just the start. We’re embarking on a large scale marketing campaign which will include many types of media – billboards, radio, posters etc. – which will make Sure Signal a recognised term nationwide.
You can find out more and/or buy a Sure Signal femtocell on the Vodafone Website. The product is now priced at £120 (or just £50 if you are on a Vodafone contract at £25/month). There are no ongoing additional charges. All calls, texts and data usage is charged at the same rate as when outdoors on the normal Vodafone network.
There's also a bit more technical information on our Vodafone UK page. In case you haven't seen one, here's a billboard advert for Sure Signal below: