Case Study: Rural residential smartphone voice service

CottageA technically aware friend of mine lives in a small village in rural Somerset. Cellular coverage is generally poor and unreliable indoors. His partner works from home and needs mobile service. He shared with me how he went about solving the problem and the reasoning behind his choice of solution.



On the edge of wireline and wireless service

For those of us living in cities and towns with a choice of fast internet broadband from fixed and cable TV networks, it’s easy to forget that no such options exist just a few miles away. The population density doesn’t make it viable for Cable TV or Fibre nearby. ADSL broadband over long copper wires achieves some 3 Mbps down but only 0.25 Mbps up with the router supplied. It’s the upstream speed that is the limiting factor for VoIP, Wi-Fi Calling or a femtocell.

The contours of the rolling hills of Somerset make it more difficult for cellular signals to traverse into the valleys over long distances. The higher frequencies at 1800MHz and 2.1GHz used by EE and Three have a shorter range than the lower ones around 900MHz by Vodafone and O2. Both Three and EE are rapidly deploying service at their new 800MHz LTE bands which should even the playing field, but will require VoLTE and recent smartphones to support voice.

None of the mobile networks provides a signal adequate to penetrate inside the stone walls of their home.

Outdoor Rural Service is the primary factor

If the service only worked indoors, then arguably a landline phone would be the best choice – cordless if mobility is required indoors. But a major element of mobile service is that it’s always with you, and that’s where good outdoor coverage is needed to reach you in your car, walking outside or at the shops. This initial blanket coverage can really only be achieved through cell towers and macrocells, with not-spots filled in with outdoor small cells.

In addition to deployment of the lower 800MHz bands (and 700MHz as has been done across the USA), rural small cell programs such as Vodafone’s ROSS (Rural Open Sure Signal) and EE’s rural micro networks should help improve that. EE are targeting 99% population coverage by end 2017. However, these will take time not just to roll out but to change perception and opinion. New frequencies may only work with the latest smartphones and it takes time for those in use to be refreshed.

Three was rejected for poor local coverage in their area and EE’s service level was also a concern despite reaching 90% population coverage earlier this year. Vodafone and O2 retain good 2G service at 900MHz which still commands the perception of better performance in their region.

Wi-Fi Networking

Seamless Wi-Fi Calling is now integrated into the Apple iPhone 5C/5S/6/6S and similar smartphones. Unfortunately their iPhones are just too old (5 and 4S) so would need an upgrade to use it. It’s available today from both EE and Vodafone.

You do need a good Wi-Fi network at home and this is even more important where stone walls hamper RF propagation. A site survey was done using a free professional Mac App called NetSpot. Due to the internal stone walls, the low cost broadband modem/router WiFi supplied by the wireline broadband company was replaced by three Wi-Fi access points from Ubiquiti. These are capable of co-ordinating the Wi-Fi service across multiple radio units to give a more seamless and continuous service. While I’m sure there are many more sophisticated Wi-Fi access points (at different price levels), I’d guess that relatively few homeowners would want to bother with that level of complexity. Most just want to plug in a box and go, or extend with a few HomePlug WiFi points, but in this house HomePlug was unreliable.

A second and possibly even more important aspect of the home network was to apply QoS. An iPhone uploading your latest snaps or your laptop syncing with Dropbox would quickly swamp the broadband uplink and block outbound voice traffic. This is why T-Mobile USA have been shipping their own routers to customers using Wi-Fi calling – these prioritise the voice calls in preference to other data traffic.

A further concern was that once Wi-Fi Calling is enabled, the smartphone may attempt to use it when away in other public places without good enough service. I understand that this aspect can be disabled but it could catch some users out with unexpected behaviour.

Residential Femtocell

Vodafone UK have been the most visible proponents of residential Femtocells since they launched the service (called Sure Signal) in 2009. Other networks do offer these products (Three and O2) but usually they are only available after calling customer services and verifying that you have poor service.

The product is simple to use – plug and play – and although some have commented they occasionally needed to reset the device, it generally works well and can cover the whole house.

It is compatible with all 3G smartphones.

With such a limited broadband speed, the QoS applied on the uplink was also needed to avoid problems in the same way as W-Fi Calling needed.


EE are known to provide Nextivity’s Cel-Fi repeater for some customers, but don’t publicly advertise this for residential users. If EE’s signal coverage had been better in their area, this may have been a good solution since it bypasses the limited wireline broadband.

Cost and Contract

Naturally, you want to test and verify that the service will be good enough before committing to a long term contract. While many networks do offer a “money back” guarantee or trial period, an easier option is to try this with a 30-day SIM using your existing phone. Number portability means that it’s now fairly trivial to move between operators and the swap can be done within a couple of hours.

Vodafone’s Wi-Fi Calling still seems to have some teething troubles. Although it supports fancy new features such as video calls, it doesn’t handle SMS texts. One forum reports users having huge problems in getting it to work properly, with up to 20 calls to customer support. To me, it feels like it’s the early days of residential Femtocells all over again but with a larger number of issues to address.

EE try to avoid potential support issues by advertising that you must buy a new phone directly from them (which they can then provision and setup correctly). Some of their customer service staff will insist this is the only option. However compatible devices will support the service with just a new EE SIM card. Internet forums suggest that EE’s service is more robust and mature but not perfect.

I understand that Wi-Fi Calling is only available on pay monthly tariffs (30 day or 12 month contracts) and not on Pay-As-You-Go/Prepaid. Voice calls are charged as part of your allowance; Data sent over Wi-Fi goes directly to the internet and doesn’t affect your cellular data bundle.

Today’s Choice

While EE’s Wi-Fi Calling was seriously considered, their current rural coverage in that area and the need to upgrade both existing smartphones made that a difficult choice.

Vodafone still has the best rural coverage in their area. Concerned about their relatively immature Wi-Fi Calling service, they chose a residential 3G femtocell which is fully compatible with their existing handsets.

Some observations

Prioritising voice traffic on the broadband link was essential to make either work in this environment with such limited wireline broadband.

Rural outdoor coverage was an important baseline – indoor only service isn’t enough, although might be better than nothing in some scenarios.

Residential Femtocells are compatible with all existing 3G smartphones avoiding the need for upgrades to handle Wi-Fi Calling.

Poor Wi-Fi coverage throughout the home can cause disconnects and upsets, leading to customer care calls. With more Wi-Fi connected devices, this is becoming a greater risk.

Integrated Wi-Fi Calling is still maturing. Not all networks are the same. Providing reliable and robust SMS text service is far more important than video calling.

The ability to disable Wi-Fi Calling when away from a known home environment is important to avoid unexpected poor quality or lack of service from overloaded or variable quality public Wi-Fi elsewhere.

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#1 Jeremy Biggs said: 
Just a couple of comments, whilst I appreciate that I live closer to a town and therefore my wireline broadband upstream speed is compatible with good quality VoIP, which is not the case in the narrative above. I had similar poor mobile reception - my personal mobile was with Vodafone and I signed up to their Sure Signal service as soon as it was released and apart from some early software issues which their technical guys in Egypt sorted out it has worked very well.
The main problem was with my works mobile which originally was on Orange and was fine whilst we had Blackberries because I could use their version of "WiFicalling". The problem occurred when as a company we changed to iPhones and the easiest way for me around this was to divert my mobile signal to my landline and then to use VoIP to call out, which worked well although obviously was a bit cumbersome and you had to remember to do the switch before reaching home and to deactivate it once you had left home. By and large I remembered and didn't miss too many important calls.
We upgraded to iPhone 6's before EE rolled out their "WiFicalling" program but once it was up and running it has worked well.
0 Quote 2015-11-27 09:29
#2 Andy McCulloch said: 
Hi David,

We have a similar 'not spot' issue in South Gloucestershire but do have an independent business laying 1000Mbps fibre into the village - we are looking at ways to small cell the village out (it's AONB and Conservation) - who should/could I contact to discuss options?

Andy McCulloch
+1 Quote 2016-02-05 16:24
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