The Vodafone Access Gateway was launched mid 2009, one of the first residential femtocell services in Europe. The product has since been revised and updated twice, using the new brand name Sure Signal. We've left this original review online for posterity.
What is the Vodafone Access Gateway?
It's a smart looking box about the size of a paperback book - only much lighter. Similar to a WiFi router, you plug it into your broadband internet and it provides outstanding 3G voice and data service in your home.
The Gateway is actually a complete mobile phone basestation (sometimes called a mast), but operates at very low power and short range.
What problem does it solve?
Fed up with poor mobile phone coverage at home? Incoming calls not always getting through? Struggling to make out what people are saying?
Poor quality voice is one of the main reasons why people change their mobile phone network. For those who don't have a choice of network (such as when your business provides your mobile phone), this can be even more frustrating.
Although most parts of the UK do have excellent (or adequate) mobile phone service, there are always pockets where reception isn't good. This might be for geographic reasons (you live at the bottom of a valley), or because it wasn't possible for the network to build a cellsite nearby.
What do you need to use it?
- Power from a 240V mains outlet. A power adaptor is included with a lead of about 2 metres.
- Broadband internet. A 2 metre Ethernet cable is included in the box. Your broadband must have a speed of 1Mbit/s downlink and about 200kbit/s uplink. If you aren't sure, check this for free at www.speedtest.net
- 3G capable mobile phone with a Vodafone SIM card. It doesn't matter if it is prepaid or postpaid. It also works with USB Mobile Broadband sticks.
It won't work with:
- 2G only phones (such as really basic or older models)
- Mobile phones from other networks (Orange, O2, T-Mobile etc)
- Foreign mobile phones (including non-UK Vodafone)
What does it cost?
The Vodafone Access Gateway can be bought outright (so you own it) for £160 from the Vodafone Online Store. You can also buy one as part of a new mobile phone contract and pay £5 a month extra. It's been said that those spending £60/month or more may get one free of charge (especially if they call up complaining about poor coverage and threaten to leave). But don't expect a free one if you pay less than this - reports suggest Vodafone are quite firm on this.
You'll also pay for the power and internet broadband usage. Power consumption is about 14W - this doesn't change much when making calls. This equates to about 120kWh per year, so at 10p per kWh adds about £12 to your annual electricity bill.
Internet broadband consumption for voice calls is minimal. A GByte would handle several days of continuous talking. There is also a background communications between the femtocell and mobile network which takes up some 0.0004 Gbytes per month.
The Access Gateway is presented in a smart cardboard box, similar to other commercial home computer products. There is a single sheet of clear instructions on how to set it up, with other smaller booklets providing more detail.
The unit is quite attractive and would not be out of place sitting on a desk or worktop in a public area.
What strikes you first is just how lightweight it is - about 600g - less than a paperback book of the same size. It is also completely noise free in operation - air cooled with no mechanical parts or annoying fan buzzing in the background.
The second thing is just how little there is to it. Plug in the power, plug in the internet and watch the lights until it's online. No switches or other direct configuration is needed.
...and no noise whatsoever.
Once unpacked and plugged in, you need to fill in an online registration form before it will become active. The form requires the serial number of the unit, your postcode (would be used in the event of emergency calls), and a list of all the phone numbers you want to be allowed to use it. This would include any USB mobile broadband sticks, prepaid and postpaid numbers for your family, friends or colleagues who visit your home.
The registration process appears to be done manually at this time and should take no more than 24 hours. Reports suggest this varies from a few hours to a day or so. Checks are made that phone numbers submitted are indeed Vodafone ones - if not, you'll receive an email rejecting those from the list.
When registration has been accepted, you'll receive an email and other phones will receive a text message. A few hours later, these should have been put onto the system and your Access Gateway will stop flashing, indicating it's ready for use.
How long to start up?
The first time you switch on, it may take a day or more to initialize - but this is mainly due to the back-office registration mentioned above.
I've found if you just switch off and on, it takes about 4 minutes before the indicator lights settle down and its ready to take calls. You may find that your mobile phone doesn't immediately lock onto the femtocell (it will be quicker if there is no outdoor signal).
One factor which can extend the startup time dramatically is if the "ping" time for your broadband internet is very long (say more than 100ms). This makes it difficult for the Gateway to synchronise its timing mechanism, resulting in startup times of anything up to 90 minutes. (For techies reading this, the Gateway uses NTP (Network Time Protocol) to set it's internal clocks which are calibrated to 0.1 parts per million). Fortunately, most domestic broadband services are much better than this and won't cause a problem.
How do I use it on my mobile phone?
You don't do anything different at all. What's perhaps surprising is that there is no indication on the phone that you are using the Gateway. You may be able to tell if you haven't got 3G coverage in your area because the 3G indicator on your phone will now light up.
All services work as elsewhere, including voice calls, voicemail, text, picture messaging and internet access. You may just find that it works quicker and voice calls are clearer.
Incoming calls will still take a few seconds before your phone wakes up and starts ringing. Text messages typically arrive immediately.
What's the range like?
Although operating at very low power (something like 50mW maximum), the Access Gateway uses frequencies which are exclusive to Vodafone so unless your neighbours all have one, this gives it an advantage over WiFi which shares its spectrum with many other types of equipment.
I've found the range extremely good - it worked well down to the bottom of my garden (about 30 metres away), switching automatically to the outdoor cellsite as I walked further away. The signal penetrated through all the walls in my house (so sometimes 2 brick walls), with a clear signal both upstairs and downstairs.
Calls were of high quality in all rooms in my house, in fact better than found using my DECT cordless phone. There were no glitches, clicks or pops. Unlike when using 2G GSM, there isn't the annoying stream of buzzes heard from your speakers/TV/laptop just before a call or text arrives.
I used a prepaid Vodafone USB Mobile Broadband stick with my laptop to test out performance. The results showed that I couldn't run a full speed test when using the outdoor network - it just wouldn't complete properly. On the Access Gateway, the performance matched both Wired and WiFi for both downlink and uplink.
The speed was limited by my wireline broadband connection, rather than the Access Gateway (which is rated at up to 6Mbit/s downlink) or my USB stick (rated at up to 3.6Mbit/s). I've documented my data speed test on the Vodafone Access Gateway here.
Since then, I've found the speeds do vary from time to time. This is generally in line with my wireline broadband performance, but occasionally there is some additional or different bottlenecks going through the Vodafone network.
But for general mobile data usage on smaller devices, it is excellent.
Is it safe?
For some, the thought of having a mobile basestation (or mast) anywhere near their home strikes fear of potential health concerns. The industry has done its best to explain that very low transmission power is used, driven both by regulation and by strong commercial benefits (lower power usually means less interference with nearby basestations, so they can each handle more phone calls. Perhaps a more critical factor is the transmission power used by the mobile phone itself, which is often held next the head during calls.
The Vodafone Access Gateway uses much lower transmit power than an outdoor basestation, which also means your handset itself reduces its power levels to a whisper. Instead of needing to communicate to a cell tower many miles away, it's only got to reach a few metres.
Maximum legal transmit power of an outdoor cellsite is 20W (RF radiated power per sector).
Maximum power of the Vodafone Access Gateway is 0.05W (RF radiated power total).
This is approximately 400 times less power.
Most mobile phones these days have a maximum transmit power of 1W, although the battery wouldn't last as long at this level. Dynamic power control automatically reduces the tranmission to the minimum required, so typically this wouldn't be more than 50mW when using the Gateway and could be less.
Again, this is a factor of at least 20 times lower.
Another argument is to compare this with existing household equipment, such as cordless phones (usually rated at 0.1W) and WiFi. Since the Gateway uses more modern technology than older cordless phones, you'll find better voice quality at lower power levels using your mobile phone.
The Femto Forum has published a study on this topic .
Who makes the Access Gateway?
The product is supplied by Alcatel-Lucent, who supply the entire system. They have worked with SAGEM, who manufacture large numbers of set-top boxes and broadband routers, and who provided the hardware design and styling. The Gateway is a Vodafone branded BroadW@ve 3001 and internally uses a chipset based on picoChip's PC202 design.
Alcatel Lucent provide the software within the unit, and also the Femtocell Gateway which sits inside Vodafone's network centre. This consolidates all the traffic from thousands of femtocells and connects through into the same network equipment which handles calls from other cellsites.
Although standards have been defined for this type of product, this system is an early version and uses Alcatel Lucent's own internal protocols and software.
Once the standard becomes more widely available, the existing Gateways can be upgraded remotely by software download. The standard would also make it easy for Vodafone to buy Gateways from other vendors, helping to drive costs down and innovation up.
Alcatel-Lucent have been showing a smaller product design (about half the size), based on picoChip's PC312 chipset. It should be in production before the end of 2009. It speeds along at up to 14Mbit/s downlink and 5 Mbit/s uplink but uses much less power to meet the recent published EU requirements (of less than 8W). This new unit also has software features including a "sleep" mode which saves power but still keep the clock circuits working so it can restart very quickly.
Also in the pipeline from this vendor is the BroadW@ve 4704: an integrated DSL modem and femtocell with a similar specification.
This doesn't mean that Vodafone will offer new products from Alcatel-Lucent in the future (although I think this is likely). Standards have been defined which will allow Vodafone to supply Gateways from other vendors, and its quite possible they will have at least two suppliers with different products during 2010.
Will I get cheaper calls?
At this time, Vodafone do not offer any rebate or lower charges for calls and data sent via the Access Gateway. The ability to make and receive high quality calls is the only justification.
Other similar products found in other countries, such as Sprint's Airave, do come with unlimited calls and/or discounted rates (but for a standard monthly fee).
One issue is that customers may not realise when they are (and are not) using the femtocell - there is no indication on the handset, only a flashing light on the Access Gateway itself. This could cause problems where long calls are made on the mistaken assumption they were included in the packaged price.
Can someone else use my Access Gateway?
Only those Vodafone mobile phone numbers which you have registered can be used. Other phones will be rejected if they try to connect to it, and will remain on the outdoor cellsites. This approach has the benefit that you won't be surprised by excessive or unexpected broadband usage charges, but it does make it awkward for casual visitors to use it with your permission.
To add or change the list of authorized mobile phone numbers, you have to ring up the call centre (which is open during extended working hours). Requests for such changes can take up to 24 hours to complete, by which time your visitors may have left.
I'd like to see an option for customers to choose to open up their femtocell for anyone to use, on the understanding that there may be some additional broadband usage. I would imagine that public service establishments, such as hotels would want to enable this in the same way that they offer free internet WiFi access today.
Can I use it elsewhere?
There doesn't appear to be a "location lock" on the Gateway. You can take it to different houses within the UK and it will continue to work. However, it's very unlikely to work abroad (the system checks your IP address and can work out that you not in the UK).
Should there be an emergency call made, the registered address will be passed on - so if you haven't kept Vodafone updated then potentially emergency crews could go to the wrong place.
The two areas I'd like to see additional features for relate to initial setting up/diagnostics and managing the mobile phone number list. Ideally, there would be a built-in website on the device (such as commonly found on many domestic routers and WiFi boxes today). This would show the connection status and detail any technical problems so that they can more easily be diagnosed and resolved.
The website could also be used to maintain the list of approved phone numbers, show which phones are currently connected/in range and even record usage. It probably wouldn't be a good idea to log all phone calls made because this might cause some infringement of personal rights - I don't want just anyone being able to look at what phone numbers I've called or received calls from.
Many operators around the world have been experimenting and trialling similar products, known as femtocells. Vodafone launched their service much earlier than expected and this has put pressure on other networks to do the same. We can expect some further femtocell launches in other countries before the end of 2009, although I think it is difficult to tell whether we'll see another UK operator launch this year.
Femtocell technology has also been incorporated into other domestic products, such as a combined broadband modem/router/WiFi. This makes it much easier to setup and support. We've also seen them integrated into set-top boxes, such as used for broadband TV.
The industry is currently looking at the best way to package up these products so that it can be attractive to the consumer, whilst also making money for the network operator. High quality voice and fast data services are very attractive, discounted call charges more so. We can expect operators to try some innovative and radical pricing schemes as the industry works out the best approach.
Some more technical detail
What comes in the box:
- Vodafone Access Gateway
- 240V Mains power adaptor with 2metres of cable
- 2 metre Ethernet cable to connect to your broadband router
- Quickstart Guide
- Statement of Open Source Software included in the device
Size: 190mm x 150mm x 48mm
Power: Rated at 12V at up to 1.5A using supplied mains adaptor. Consumption measured at 14W during normal operation (little impact when making calls)
Concurrent calls: 4 (these can be either voice or data sessions)
Mobile Phone list: Up to 32 Vodafone mobile phone numbers, although any phone number worldwide may be called using the Gateway. The list can be updated by calling customer care and waiting up to 24 hours.
Data speed: Downlink 6Mbit/s, Uplink 1Mbit/s shared between all concurrent users.
Broadband: Recommended speed 1Mbit/s downlink, 200kbit/s uplink, ping time <100ms. Consumption of a few Mbytes per month depending on number of minutes of use. Longer ping times (>100ms) may mean the unit takes much longer (say more than an hour) to initialise, but typically most domestic broadband users won't have this problem.
For those who use their Vodafone mobile phones at home a lot of the time, and where they find voice quality is sometimes an issue, the Vodafone Access Gateway is a very worthwhile investment. If your monthly bill exceeds £60, then you may qualify for one free of charge - in which case definitely take up the offer.
We found the unit works well once setup giving excellent voice quality and data performance. There were delays getting it working initially, diagnostic features are very limited and changing the list of permitted phones was a hassle.
The incremental costs of running the unit (electricity and broadband usage) are comparatively trivial compared to mobile phone bills themselves. Should Vodafone or a competitor bundle this product or offer cheaper calls for using it, then it will become even more attractive to customers.
As stated at the beginning of this article, the Vodafone Access Gateway was launched mid 2009 and has been superceded by their SureSignal product using later technology. These deliver the same features but with higher performance (more users, faster speeds) in a smaller compact unit that consumes less power.