Forget moving around the room and waving your arms in the air to get a better mobile signal: so-called "femtocells" have emerged this year as the saving grace for overloaded mobile networks plagued with blackspots – allowing you to install a miniature base station that will bring more bars than ever to more parts of your home or office. But how well do they work?
This was the question on our lips as we unpacked a trial unit provided by Optus and put it to the test in a typical Melbourne suburban home that's normally beset by reception problems. Missed calls, dropouts and poor conversation quality were common features of reception that usually hovered around one bar on our iPhone 3GS.
Data reception over the 3G network was equally shocking: baseline testing in 10 locations around the property, using the widely used SpeedTest iOS application, found that speeds ranged from 0.03Mbps download/0.05 upload in the kitchen to 0.17Mbps/0.02Mbps in the rear family room, to a peak of 3.91Mbps/0.32Mbps in the front yard.
Optus' Home Zone, as it is called, is designed to fix this situation by providing a stronger signal than the normal network for mobiles to latch onto. The femtocell plugs into any existing router, then registers itself onto Optus' mobile network and routes calls to and from the mobile network using the home's existing internet connection.
The device and service cost AU$5 per month — a charge that has led many critics to slam Optus for charging customers to improve deficiencies in its network. That said, it's a nominal fee, and its impact is lessened somewhat by an Optus decision to include unlimited local and STD calls from the primary mobile registered with the femtocell. This is reminiscent of a similar geographically linked service pioneered a decade ago by Hutchison Telecoms subsidiary Orange (now part of Three, subsumed into the Vodafone joint venture VHA Australia).
The Home Zone femtocell is about the same size as an ADSL modem, with a shockingly bright light that could, in a pinch, be used as emergency lighting during power blackouts. If you're installing the unit somewhere that dark is sometimes desirable — for example, in a bedroom — you may want to cover it with duct tape or invest in a pair of sunglasses.
The unit itself is an Alcatel-Lucent Home Cell v2 , which claims a maximum 100 mW transmission power and less than 10W power consumption, and operates in the 1900MHz frequency band used by Optus' network.
Thanks to the unit's built-in self-configuration tools, the Home Zone was a breeze to set-up: plug it into the mains outlet, plug the included Ethernet cable into the unit and into a switch or router on your network and sign up through the Optus Home Zone page.
During sign-up, you can register up to 11 Optus mobile numbers that can be used with the device, and up to four devices at any given time. The access control list will be checked automatically every time someone tries to make a call, to make sure that neighbours and passers-by don't try to piggyback onto your service.
We entered the serial number from the femtocell unit, registered our two most often used mobile numbers, and waited for the service to go live. And waited.
It's not clear just how long it took for the service to go live, but it wasn't working immediately, or 20 minutes after plugging it in. But it was working about two hours later, which we knew because we were getting four bars of reception — and making a mobile call invoked a quick three-note tone designed to indicate that the femtocell was indeed handling calls.