Femtocell Opinion, comment and reviews

My first femtocell experience with the Vodafone Access Gateway!

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.

Summary

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 

 

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Comments   

#1 Andrew Chisholm said: 
I've had a femto cell for about a week now; it took about a week to arrive. Network simplicity here made for a much easier provisioning process; it took about two hours from plugging it in to the appearance of a 3G icon on the handset.

Adding new SIMs was challenging. Vodafone themselves changed their own process three times in one particular day. It was the luck of the draw whether you got a customer representative who had read the "process change" emails or not.

Having waded through Vodafone's treacle, ironically whilst using the femto cell to make the calls (which were fine by the way), we now have 5 SIMs allowed to use the device. Vodafone themselves acknowledged they were caught slightly off guard by the demand and some of the finer details but they were pretty cheerful about the whole thing so I'll let them off.

I have to say, once it's all set up, it works very well. All the back end work that must be going on to synchronise the provisioning and billing systems must have required herculean efforts. I'll be waiting to check the bill however.

I've used some specialist equipment to measure the customer experience using the new cell. I've seen an improvement in data rates as well as evidence that normal SIMs experience more variability in the time taken to find their macro cell and therefore a slight deterioration to their customer experience.

Apart from more testing, the next task is to work out how much data is generated in a day and whether it approaches the "generous" 1Gb per month some ISPs allow their customers.
0 Quote 2009-07-20 16:13
 
#2 Thinkfemtocell said: 
Andrew, thanks for sharing your experience with us. I'd second your support for the undoubted herculean labours going on behind the scenes to plug the gaps and keep the show on the road. I've calculated the approximate internet usage from voice calls in a separate article at 3 days non-stop per Gbyte. Even if this is an overestimate, it shouldn't be a problem (you can validate my calculations by downloading the spreadsheet from our resources section). Data usage from a laptop would of course be much more significant.

Let us know how you get on...
0 Quote 2009-07-20 20:49
 
#3 Clive said: 
Interesting reading your experience which I think sums it up pretty well. My experience has been similar. Do you think there are customers who have just plugged it in and it works, or is this a product only for people who know how to fiddle with their routers? I don't have that much technical knowledge so I have struggled a bit. At the moment the only way I can get it to work is by switching off the firewall in the router, which is not ideal obviously. It worked for a while if I put it into a DMZ but that doesn't seem to be working either now. I was surprised that the product did not come with any information about ports etc. Would it be possible for you to pass on the port information you were given? While it is working I must say it is pretty impressive with full strength 3G across the household.

Many thanks

Clive
0 Quote 2009-07-23 15:22
 
#4 Thinkfemtocell said: 
I've listed the specific ports used in the section above. Yes, I think there are probably quite a few customers where it does just work - my network config was non-standard and I didn't have to do anything with my old router set to its default config. Please keep us posted on your results both with call quality and configuration.
0 Quote 2009-07-23 19:41
 
#5 Clive said: 
Well after your comment that many people should be able to just plug it in and off you go, I decided to take the plunge. I did a factory reset on my router (SMC BRA 7904) and within minutes all was working perfectly. No special configuration required. So far I'm very pleased with the results. I was in a household that barely got 1 bar of 2G, now we get full 3G coverage in the whole house and reasonable results in the garden and in the street in front of the house. Well done Vodafone for being first to offer this service. The communication could probably have been better - but perhaps that's why they started with a fairly low profile approach. One gets the feeling that it's a bit of an experiment for them at this stage, they're certainly not publicising it widely yet. Thanks for your help.
0 Quote 2009-07-28 13:10
 
#6 Andy Wise said: 
I have had an almost identical experience - except I still have not got mine working and although the specialist help desk say they will replace it as they think its faulty - the on-line sales department are saying that they can't replace it as its more than 7 days old!
I have had to purchase new network equipment to set the gateway up outside my firewall as it does not support IPSEC transversal, however this has not fixed the problem - I can also see the gateway box trying to make a DNS look-up on sftp-server.vap .vodafone.co.uk - which unfortunately is not configured in Vodafone's DNS (suspect this may be part of the problem??)

It simply never occurred to me that I would run into a 7 day return problem - I only want the thing fixed but getting anyone in support to help is a nightmare (over an hour on the phone today waiting in queues)

We stumble on in hope !
0 Quote 2009-08-07 14:57
 
#7 Mandy said: 
Collected our Femtocell on Friday and it's now Wed but nothing works except for one green power light displaying. Have spent a lot of time waiting on the helpdesk line (about an hour in total now) and when we did speak to people they were pleasant but could not help. We're not allowed to talk direct to anyone technical. Eventually were sent Port info document. Have now been told there are currently known issues with the Belkin router which they are trying to resolve (no timeline), so we tried a 3Com one which doesn't work either. It seems Netgear are the only ones they know will work with the Femtocell at the moment. Were thinking of sending it all back (as have only just changed to Vodafone when found weak signal in our area) but now decided to get a Netgear router. Fingers crossed. I think Vodafone could do a lot to improve their support. It would help to know what number you are in the queue for starters.
0 Quote 2009-08-12 14:11
 
#8 Mandy said: 
Vodafone Access Gateway now working ok with Belkin router. Quality of mobile phone signal is brilliant when it's working.
0 Quote 2009-09-28 11:26
 
#9 Thinkfemtocell said: 
@Mandy. Great to hear it's now working. I heard there was a software patch downloaded recently which seems to have improved things. As you say, once it's working the quality and data performance are brilliant.

@Andy/Clive. Sounds like you've had to struggle with the same type of issues I did. With the new software version and increased support team at Vodafone, I sense that the initial teething problems are getting sorted out.

Anyone else able to share their experience of their own Vodafone Access Gateway?
0 Quote 2009-09-29 22:09
 
#10 Mike said: 
I'm in a similar position - business-class ADSL at home with no NAT and routed subnet of real IP addresses. Firewall is allowing everything to/from the access gateway but it just sits there flashing its power light. Looking at network traffic I can see plenty of packets going back and forth between the access gateway and "initial-ipsecr outer.vap.vodaf one.co.uk" but nothing else is happening. I'm beginning to wonder whether it actually expects to be behind a typical home NAT router.
0 Quote 2009-11-26 16:05
 
#11 ThinkFemtocell said: 
Mike - I have wondered if being behind a NAT firewall is mandatory for the Vodafone Access Gateway to work. I anyone has been successful in this configuration please let us know. Otherwise, if you do find a workaround or identify specific issues, please comment further.
0 Quote 2009-11-26 23:21
 
#12 Andrew Wise said: 
I finally got my Access Gateway working by changing the network configuration (which meant I had to change my ISP!)

The Vodafone Access Gateway does not work in a "No NAT" environment - its just not supported. As soon as the gateway is behind a NAT router which is normal for domestic networks then it works fine (so long as you have a reasonably capable router which supports IPSEC NAT Transversal - some do not!)

So now I have a router that supports a combination of fixed IP addresses and NAT IP addresses - my servers are on fixed IP so they can be seen from the network and my Access Gateway is on a private IP address using NAT to connect back to Vodafone.

The whole experience has been a nightmare - Vodafone support was out of its depth on technical issues and the product itself is very poorly selected as it does not work in the simpler configuration without NAT!
0 Quote 2010-02-05 10:14
 
#13 Lee_Vodafone said: 
Hi all,

The Vodafone Sure Signal will work with any home or office broadband with a download speed of at least 1 Mb per second. However some broadband routers may require particular settings. Information on configuration settings are available at vodafone.co.uk/ businesssuresig nal Any customer experiencing problems with the configuration of their Vodafone Sure Signal should visit the website for further information.

Many thanks,

Lee

Web Relations Team

Vodafone UK
0 Quote 2010-02-18 19:29
 
#14 ThinkFemtocell said: 
I asked this question to my contacts at Alcatel-Lucent and received confirmation that the femtocell has been successfully tested in both NAT and non-NAT configurations. I can only think that there are some further configuration issues around the specific router configuration which are causing the problem here. I expect the most common (e.g. domestic with NAT) routers would have the fewest issues.

If anyone else has had similar experiences, please comment with the issue and outcome (you can do so anonymously if preferred)
0 Quote 2010-02-28 20:34
 
#15 toe inthewater said: 
might be lots of probs for consumers but wow its frighteneing to fund all the resources needed to get it working full lifecycle core/cust gear/processes and NOT know if there will ever be a profit. In home/business environment do you think its simpler to just get a splitter and have the femto straight off the DSL connection and in front of the firewalls?
0 Quote 2010-09-08 13:09
 
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