Vodafone Access Gateway femtocell

Or, How To Spend Lots Of Money And Then Pay For Your Mobile Calls Twice

There's no denying that this product can be of use if you're in the unfortunate position of needing 3G coverage from Vodafone UK and from no other operator. If this is the case and you have a decent enough broadband connection then this product will certainly fit the bill. There is, however, a more sinister side to it in that the business model used to place it on the market do leave a little to be desired. Let me elaborate...

What is a femtocell and how does it work?

You know those mobile phone towers that everybody wants near enough to have great mobile phone coverage but not in their own back yard? This is one of those that's been very much scaled down both in size and in terms of power output. A big, outdoors mast has its radio tranceivers on the top and equipment in the cabinet at the foot of the mast to connect the signals directly to the operator's backhaul network. This one here has tiny tranceivers in the housing that emit a fraction of the radiation, just enough to give you a good 3G signal for your phone within your home, and it uses your home broadband internet connection to tunnel into Vodafone's own network. In effect, you have a base station in your home.

This base station allows you to place and receive calls and to connect your phone to the internet using the 3G signal.

In theory...

Also, this device is 3G only, no GSM signal is broadcast. If your mobile phone is not a 3G phone, it will not work with this device.

A few figures

The Access Gateway femtocell requires that phones be registered to it in order for them to be able to use it. It provides a web-based interface allowing you to register up to 30 Vodafone numbers with it. Only 4 phones can be connected to it and use it simultaneously.

Vodafone are selling this piece of kit at prices ranging from £50 to £160 up front or at £5/month, depending on what level of service you want and already have.

So, what's the problem?

On the face of it, it looks like a useful piece of kit providing 3G coverage where there was none before. However...

There have been numerous complaints (head over to Vodafone's user forums if you want to see for yourself) about the kit not actually working. Apparently a phone will show a full 3G signal and the VAG tell you that all is well when in fact you are not connected to Vodafone's network at all. You will miss calls and you won't even know about it until you try (and fail) to place a call yourself.

Whenever your phone connects to a base station (and this device is a base station even though it's a lot smaller), your operator's network is updated with the ID of the base station you're connected to. When someone tries to call you, the network knows which base station to use in order to reach your phone. This sometimes (frequently?) doesn't work how it should, meaning that Vodafone doesn't know that you're connected via your femtocell and therefore can't reach you.

The "solution" proffered by Vodafone is to power-cycle the femtocell. Having to switch a device off and on again in order to make it work reliably is obviously not a perfect situation...

Other than technical issues there are commercial and financial implications. By selling you one of these femtocells, the operator is, in essence, admitting that the service you're already paying for in your mobile phone bills is not up to scratch. It is then making you pay (again) for the hardware to solve that problem.

But that's not all, it gets better!

This femtocell uses your broadband connection. So, not only are you paying for the hardware, but you're also paying for the network connectivity. Those of you with capped data contracts will have to remember that the data used by the femtocell will be counted in your monthly allowance.

Wait... There's even more...

Not only are you using your own internet connection and hardware that you've had to pay for to extend Vodafone's network at your expense, but you're not even getting a discount on your mobile calls.

Here's the best bit...

If you happen to use Vodafone's home broadband service, when you use the femtocell to place calls on your Vodafone mobile, the data sent over the internet connection is still counted against your monthly allowance. So not only are you paying the full price, but you're also using your broadband allowance that you're paying for elsewhere. You are, in effect, paying for the call twice.

So, this solution is viable, albeit costly, if you find yourself in a situation where you need to use Vodafone's mobile telephony, and Vodafone alone is an option, and if you're in an area to which Vodafone's normal network does not extend.

There are alternatives

If you stop and think about it, why do you absolutely have to make cellular calls with your mobile phone? A large proportion of phones produced over the past few years are also able to connect to standard WiFi wireless networks (WLAN), so why not turn to VoIP? Software exists for nearly all WLAN-enabled phones allowing you to place and receive VoIP calls on your phone.

This can be achieved in either of two ways. The first and simplest solution is to use a system that's designed specifically for use on internet-enabled mobile phones. Such services include Fring, Nimbuzz and Truphone. These systems usually allow free calls between users of the same system and low-cost calls to normal phone lines almost anywhere in the world. Some of them also allow the user to log into various instant messaging services such as MSN messenger, AIM, Yahoo! messenger and google chat. They also allow limited access to certain social networks like twitter and facebook.

Internet telephony solutions normally associated with desktop computers are also available to mobile phones nowadays. I'm thinking in particular of Skype, which is available as a native application on many mobile platforms. If it is not available on yours, then you can always try using Fring because that service can also interface with Skype, allowing you to place and receive Skype calls via Fring.

The second alternative solution is to use traditional VoIP providers, whose systems use a widely implemented protocol called SIP, or Session Initiation Protocol. There are numerous manufacturers of hardware SIP phones, such as Cisco, Snom and Grandstream, for example. These products all "talk" SIP, which is a pretty universal protocol.

The implementation of SIP is just a question of software. If appropriate software is available for your phone, you can get it to "talk" SIP, too, and use the services of any mainstream SIP provider. Your mobile phone will, in effect, be a SIP phone just like any of the phones from the manufacturers mentioned above. This, too, usually gets you free calls to other users of the same service and cheap calls to normal phone lines. My main providers of IP telephony are VoipTalk and VoipFone.

Even if there is no software to turn your mobile phone into a SIP phone, all is not lost. Fring, at least, can log into your VoIP provider on your behalf and relay SIP calls to/from you through your Fring account at no extra charge. Given how ubiquitous SIP is, I assume other systems similar to Fring can do likewise. The only disadvantages to this particular kind of setup (and to using Skype like this through a third party) are the comparatively poor audio quality that is a result of multiple transcodings in order to reduce bandwidth and the sometimes borderline unacceptable lag between one person speaking and the other hearing what was said on the other end of the line.

To sum this up, you have three possible solutions other than a femtocell for your telecommunications needs. In order from lowest to highest desireability, they are:

3rd position: use a third party system such as Fring, Nimbuzz or Truphone, which can interface with well-known network-based solutions such as Skype or straightforward SIP. The cost involved is nil except for the communications themselves, which can be free anyway under some circumstances.

2nd position: use standard SIP service from a run-of-the-mill SIP provider and access it with a dedicated hardware SIP phone. This is the best solution from the point of view of call quality and ease of use. It does, however, mean buying a dedicated SIP phone, although that SIP phone will probably be cheaper than the femtocell...

1st position: use your WLAN-enabled mobile phone as a SIP phone. You get call quality that's maybe just a bit lower than you would with a dedicated, hardware SIP phone, and it might also be marginally less flexible to use depending on how well the SIP software integrates with your phone. There is little to no expense, though, because the software is more often than not either absolutely free or extremely low cost.

The femtocell does, however, have one major advantage over all of these three solutions: convergence. Whether your mobile is connected to a conventional base station or to your femtocell, if someone dials your mobile number then your phone will ring. This is not the case with any of the VoIP solutions outlined above.

Does it matter?

It depends on the reason why you want the femtocell in the first place.

Do you want the femtocell so that you can still be reached on your mobile when you're otherwise out of reach of your mobile network? If so then none of these VoIP solutions are really any good for you. In this case, you could always consider diverting all inbound calls from your mobile to your land line. You'd most likely have to pay for any calls diverted this way on top of your contract, and you'd have to weigh this cost against the cost of the femtocell.

Do you want the femtocell so that you can place calls using the free minutes in your contract rather than letting them go to waste while paying for communications on your landline? If so then you might want to consider a VoIP solution, which will be cheaper than the femtocell and cheaper than normal landline calls.

Food for thought...

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