I had the opportunity to witness what it’s like moving into a brand new tower block apartment in London recently where some relatives moved in. I was struck by the contrast between the high standard of basic services provision with the thoughtlessness of cellular service. The industry seems be getting distracted with 5G while simply ignoring the needs of its customers.
A significant number of users continue to report poor mobile coverage in their homes. There will always be areas which are uneconomic for mobile operator to reach. They range from rural areas hidden by geographic features including dense forestation, hills to buildings constructed from stone and concrete. Modern building materials, such as reflective glass coatings on windows, reduce the signal levels inside buildings which also contribute to poor service.
This situation has worsened with the migration from 2G to 3G, which in many countries operates at a higher frequenecy (2100MHz rather than 900MHz), and thus has shorter range. It also reduces the quality of the radio link and therefore the peak data rates achieveable.
Several poor coverage technical solutions are available
There are several options open to residential customers to solve poor coverage problems:
- Install a signal booster, also known as a signal repeater. Some models are actively supported by network operators, such as the Cel-Fi described here.
- Use Voice over Wi-Fi through one of UMA (Univeral Mobile Access), a downloaded App from your operator or a 3rd party, or the more recent Voice over Wi-Fi (VoWiFi) solution which sits alongside 4G. UMA technology, although it works, hasn't been very widely deployed and is on the wane. T-Mobile USA and France Telecom were the strongest supporters. Read an overview of UMA technology and our interview France Telecom's marketing manager. There are many Apps available which provide Voice and Text messaging over Wi-Fi, some are operator branded and tie in closely with your existing cellphone number and services. Others, such as Skype and Viber, are completely independent. The newer VoWi-Fi promises to be more seamlessly integrated with smartphone operation and menus, building on the new IMS based Voice services for VoLTE.
- Install a residential small cell (formerly known as a femtocell), bought from one of the mobile networks such as AT&T, Sprint or Vodafone
Benefits of the residential small cell
Almost all residential small cells are based on 3G technology, and are deployed in areas where the vast majority of users now have 3G capable phones.
View a list of current mobile network operators offering residential small cell/femtocells to their customers.
The graphic below (courtesy of Ubiquisys) illustrates how the residential small cell operates.
Martin Wren-Hilton tells me he's never had so much fun. His job as Head of Mobile Innovation at TalkTalk is to figure out how to squeeze a high quality mobile network service from a slither of previously unused spectrum. He presented at MWC on what's involved, their test results to date and how it could evolve.
On Friday, Free commercially launched a residential femtocell module for their existing Freebox. This will capture 3G calls in the home, providing much better signal quality and offload traffic from macrocells. Since Free, a new mobile operator in France has to pay substantial annual roaming fees to France Telecom, the switch to residential femtocells has a strong business case for them too.
We've been reporting about this plan since two years ago, in July 2011, so it's nice to see it come to fruition, and clearly indicates a execution of a calculated long term strategy which could affect the industry worldwide.
We examine the business drivers, reveal who's behind the design and manufacturing, and consider whether this approach has the same potential to shake the telco industry up as have low cost airlines in the aviation sector.
2015 promises to be the most successful year for residential femtocell shipments, with confident forecasts in the region of 3.5 to 4 million units shipped. We consider what's driving this market segment, the reasons behind strong demand for 3G and how the transition towards LTE will affect it.
Vodafone UK ran out of supplies of their latest Sure Signal femtocell last week – their latest 3rd generation model is sometimes called a femtoplug because it resembles a mains electrical plug. Their online shop posted a "currently unavailable" status on the product, and shops with stock found they were being quickly snapped up or redirected elsewhere.
This led to rumours on the Vodafone forum that the service itself might be discontinued, with one customer being told by customer services that "we've had a top level instruction saying NO more Sure Signal devices are to be supplied". In practice, this was simply a case that there weren't any available in stock at that time.
This week, the online store is back to normal and accepting orders – presumably fresh supplies have been delivered and stocks replenished.