Being a bit of a femtocell fanatic, I ordered a brand new Vodafone Access Gateway as soon as they were launched. Overall order to activation took just over 2 and a half weeks. I also needed to completely reconfigure my home network for it to work. Some room for improvement there, but once working call quality was good even up to about 30 metres outside the house.
I've documented the saga in detail below - those of a nervous disposition should look away now. Some have suggested that this product is really still in beta-testing, so we should expect a few wrinkles in these early days. Some aspects should be quite easy to fix, so please comment below if you find things have changed.
My own personal experience shows that the issues have been around communication with the customer (or lack thereof), incredibly lengthy provisioning procedure to switch it on in the network and some technical glitches/incompatibilities with the box/gateway when working in slightly non-typical environments.
If you need a Vodafone Access Gateway today, I'd recommend buying one online (rather than in the shop), so that if you can't get it to work within 7 days you can return for a full refund. If you plan to use this in a business environment, beware there are limited diagnostic tools to debug IP configuration and connectivity issues.
You can also skip to the summary at the bottom of the article for my overall views.
The Gory Details
Day 0 - First in the queue?
Rather than waiting for the shops to open on 1st July, I ordered online late on the 30th June as soon as I saw it become available. I was probably one of the very first commercial customers.
I almost immediately received an email confirming my order, and indications that it would ship within 24 hours.
Day 4 - But nothing arrived, and no mention
Having heard nothing by 4thJuly, I called customer services:
- After 15 minutes on hold, I was redirected to another department and cut off
- Calling again, after 15 minutes on hold, I was told that the appropriate department was closed for the weekend and to call back on Monday.
- Called again on Monday, after 15 minutes on hold, I was told that stocks had sold out due to high demand. A delivery was expected in a few days and that "I should watch my email box" for notification of shipping. I thought I'd rather watch paint dry.
Day 10 - It's coming soon!
Saturday 10th July. Received email in the morning informing me my gateway had been dispatched and that I would receive it within 24 hours. No tracking code to tell where or when it might be on its travels.
Day 13 - It's arrived!
Tuesday 13th July. Postman arrived at lunchtime with the product. Took it out and plugged in to power and router - 2 minutes to install. Lights start flashing. Meanwhile, also fill in online form to register the box - you need to know the serial number before you can do this, as well as your postcode and all the phone numbers of the phones/handsets/devices you want to be able to use it.
No email or communication after filling in the form, such as acknowledgement. At the very least, it would have been useful to have written details of exactly which phone numbers I'd requested access for. It would also have given me confidence that the process was underway.
Day 15 - Lights still flashing
Thursday 15th July. Lights still flashing on the box, indicating it's not yet in service. Call customer services (special number for Gateway helpdesk). 15 minutes on hold, the representative checks their systems and hasn't got any record of my registration. Suggests I register again, which I do straightaway.
I was told that the process operates in two stages. After some hours (but can be up to 24), I would first receive notification that activation was going ahead, but it can take up to a further 24 hours after that before its done.
Day 16 - The engineers are going to enable it
Friday 16th July. Receive an email mid morning informing me that my registration process has started. At the same time text messages were sent to other phones on the list informing them that I (my name was given) had asked for their phone to be added. Apparently, I can expect to be online within 24 hours (but usually it takes less than 6).
But for the rest of the day...lights still flashing..... still can't use it....
There is no further confirmation that the activation has been completed - you just have to wait and see.
Rebooted just in case this might help - to no avail.
Day 17 - It should be working by now
Called the special helpdesk number - only 5 minutes on hold this time. Was told to run a speedtest to confirm my broadband was up to the mark. Results 4Mb/s down, 0.3Mb/s up and 30ms ping times were well above requirements.
After a bit of discussion, I explained that my home network is a bit more complicated that average. I had allocated several fixed IP addresses without any firewall or NAT for devices of this type and so the femtocell should not have any restrictions or filtering preventing it from making a direct connection.
I also incorrectly suggested that the femtocell had not automatically been allocated an IP address by my router (a common process using DHCP). Since the top (main power) light was flashing, I was told this was likely the immediate problem. I was advised that Vodafone don't/can't debug my own network configuration issues, and without being connected to their network no diagnostics are possible. They did email me a list of the specific IP ports which need to be opened through any firewall/router to ensure proper connectivity.
Furthermore, I was given the impressionthat whilst the box would be replaced if it was faulty, I was on my own when it came to any network problems at my end.
After a bit more digging, I realized that the femtocell had correctly been allocated an IP address. Most of the newer devices on my network show up with a hostname that identifies it, but the femtocell had none. It could be "pinged", but unlike other domestic network products it has no built in website or webpage showing status or software version details that could have helped diagnose theproblem.
Fortunately, here in the UK, distance selling regulations allow any purchase made by post/over the internet to be returned for a full refund (no questions asked) within 7 days of the day after receipt. After that time, you'd have to rely on different legislation to return goods which aren't fit for purpose. So I had until Tuesday to get it to work or request for a refund. Time was running out...
Day 18 - Reconfigure and rewire my network
After a bit of a brainstorm I completely reconfigured my home network using an older router/modem. I setup a typical configuration sharing a single IP address, using NAT (network address translation) to map this to multiple devices in the commonly used IP address range 192.168.x.x. I connected only a PC and the femtocell. Powered everything off/on and tried again.
[For those techies amongst you, the following ports need to be open - this is typically the case by default for most routers:
NTP on UDP-123
Ping on ICMP-8
ESP on IP-50
IPsec NAT traversal on UDP-4500
After a few minutes the lights stopped flashing and 3 of the four held steady - this is the normal status and indicates it's ready for use.
I made my first femtocell call
This is confirmed by the fourth light flashing when doing so. In a quick range test, the call held up right down to the bottom of my garden - about 30 metres away on the other side of the house from the femtocell. Handover was seamless which would have occurred transparently when the handset detected a better signal from an outdoor cellsite, and voice quality was excellent.
Watch this space for more detailed review of how it performs in operation.
I'm afraid this reinforces my previous post about Vodafone rushing the launch. Having focused on the technical aspects such as whether it will interfere with their outdoor network, they appear to have forgotten to place a large order up front and tidy up the provisioning process.I felt that their customer care approach should be more forgiving in these early days of launch - refund customers who can't easily or quickly get the box to work. Some additional diagnostic tools might also not go amiss.
How could it have been different?
- Make sure there is plenty of stock available at launch
- Provision the box for use when ordered or shipped, not after delivery
- Online form to add/remove phones on demand, actioned within minutes.
- Communicate more during the provisioning process - email when the form/request is first submitted and when activation has been completed.
- Have a structured fault diagnosis procedure for those with initial connection difficulties.
- Where customers can't get the box to work, give them a full no-quibble refund. This may be more difficult if they've also just signed up a long term contract with a new phone, but surely would improve customer retention and reputation long term.
I hope this report doesn't deter other network operators from launching their femtocell products soon. Perhaps it will encourage them to ensure the associated business and customer care processes are in place from an early stage. And let's hope that as the Vodafone team gains more experience, it will be easier and quicker to resolve problems.
Oh, it's much simpler process today and you can buy the latest 3rd generation version for yourself here