Verizon Wireless likes to boast that it has the best network coverage in the nation, and indeed, we've had plenty of readers tell us they rarely have a problem with signal strength on their Verizon phones. However, that doesn't mean there aren't any dead spots or areas with weak coverage. Verizon hopes to remedy that with its new Verizon Wireless Network Extender, a femtocell that essentially adds a mini cell tower in your own home via your home's broadband network. Sprint also has a version, called the Sprint Airave, which we reviewed last year. However, unlike the Sprint Airave, the Verizon Wireless Network Extender has no monthly service fee. It does cost a lot more upfront though, about $249.99 per unit. Though it costs a lot, if you are a Verizon Wireless customer with weak signal in your home, this might be worth the expense.
Just like the Airave, the Verizon Wireless Network Extender is made by Samsung, which might explain the similar design. It looks like a regular wireless router, and on the front are four LED indicators for Power, System, GPS, and WAN status. On the back are an Ethernet jack, a charger jack, the power switch, and an antenna that can rotate up to 180 degrees. Also on the back, toward the top, is a built-in GPS antenna. The GPS is required to maintain network-timing updates plus to provide E911 services. If you can't get a GPS signal where you are, you can pop out the antenna, attach a cable to it, and position the antenna in an area of your home with the best GPS signal. In general, you should try to set up your Network Extender next to a window for the best possible signal.
Setup is easy since Verizon ships the Network Extender preactivated. Just connect the Ethernet cable to your Internet source (be it a router or directly to your modem), plug in the power, and the LED indicators will light up. You'll know it's working properly when all four lights are solid blue. Sometimes it takes a while for it to detect a GPS signal, so you might have to wait up to an hour. For us, we only waited about 10 minutes.
We tested the Network Extender with the Samsung Sway and the LG VX8360 in San Francisco. We already had pretty good reception with about three bars on both phones. The Network Extender bumped up both phones to full strength at four bars, which was quite surprising. Call quality wasn't any different on both the Sway and the VX8360; it's still excellent with or without the Network Extender.
To know if your phone is connected via the Network Extender, you will hear a short double tone at the beginning of your call. Note that if you're in an area with excellent coverage already, having the network extender probably won't boost your call quality all that much. Also, the network extender only works for voice reception; if your house doesn't get 3G or EV-DO, you're still out of luck.
For more advanced use, you can set your Network Extender for open or managed access. Open access means you're letting any Verizon phone within range, even your neighbor's phones, use your Network Extender. Managed access means you get to prioritize access for up to 50 Verizon Wireless callers that you select. Everyone still gets access to the Network Extender for those emergency 911 calls.
We're pleased with the unit overall, and it's certainly useful if you're a Verizon Wireless customer in an area with poor coverage. Even though it's expensive, at least you don't have to pay the monthly service fee that the Sprint Airave requires.