Femtocell? Go figure!

August 28, 2011
5 mins read

Should you install your own cell site, or is that a telco’s job?

Life used to be so simple. Take the ubiquitous mobile phone for example.
Straightforward proposition, powerful telcos roll out expensive infrastructure across our twisted topography, doing the easy populated bits first, followed reluctantly by sparsely populated areas after suitable wailing and gnashing of teeth by rural communities, government and farmers. Then consumers, you and me, buy a simple handset or the latest whizzbang convergence device in order to make relatively affordable, but hardly cheap, use of the aforementioned infrastructure.

Well that’s how the game was played until the sneaky femtocell reared its not entirely unattractive head….and it’s a game changer, mark my words.

The femtocell, I know it does sound vaguely medical or slightly alien but it’s neither. It’s a small cellular base station that can boost cellular coverage by connecting to your cellular provider’s mobile phone network over broadband. It’s small, relatively affordable and a neat but slightly sneaky idea and Vodafone is the first to release a product offering here.

Now it’s a really good idea for some people, especially the ones in home spun wooly jumpers subsisting on mung beans and kumera they cultivate in the remote backblocks of Ruamangawhapuke where they have located themselves for easy access to marijuana, financial or philosophical reasons. Oh and that’s somewhere down by Gisborne apparently…

While choosing blissful isolation and all the joy that comes with it, they nonetheless expect government and private enterprise to roll out all the joys enjoyed by city slickers like decile ten schools, hospitals with maternity units and CT scanners and access to cellular networks and broadband regardless of the cost/benefit analyses that everyone else is subject to.

As you’d reasonably expect, country dwellers need the internet just as much as us city slickers, and most are likely to already have broadband and can freely access all the mungbean recipes they need on the web along with PDF instruction manuals for the LongDrop 3000 and the KnitMaster VII Mark II.

Some of these geographically challenged folk may also suffer from the same pathetically poor cell signal I live with. Now, along comes a femtocell product like Vodafone’s new Sure Signal which promises to Boost Your Bars! No more standing on the roof of the long drop trying to remember in what direction the cell tower in nearby Nofarknsignaltangi lies, no more climbing the hill to the old pa for another bar of precious reception.

Let’s get to the sneaky bit, and I’m not the only skeptic to have spotted this, why even our friends at Wikipedia hit the nail right on the head. They describe the femtocell thus “For a mobile operator, the attractions of a femtocell are improvements to both coverage and capacity, especially indoors. This can reduce both capital expenditure and operating expense.” Why yes, yes they can! How do they achieve this? By making you pay for it of course! For we are simple folk, and ripe for the plucking. Well, ripe for something that sounds like plucking anyway…

The enticing proposition for a product like Sure Signal goes like this:
“Now you can buy your own cell site – plus pay us for the cell service each month! Take charge, buy infrastructure that we once had to provide! Enjoy cell coverage wherever you live because you’re funding the transmission kit and the calls!”

If I sound negative about what I think is technically really sound technology, offering considerable benefits if implemented responsibly, let me explain why.

If I lived somewhere desperately far flung and rural which was cellularly challenged I’d leap into their embrace. I’d be taking responsibility for my own decision to live apart from my countrymen in some beautiful, remote and infrastructure poor location. I’d be good with the whole femtocell gig, I really would. I’d probably be the first kid on the back block to buy in!

In fact, conversely, I live in an old leafy suburb in our largest and most populous city. My house is less than 10kms from the centre of Auckland as the crow flies. Guess what? For all intents and purposes my home enjoys Vodafone coverage so poor that it is of no practical use whatsoever. Actually that’s not true, I can text people, it’s just voice calls that fail miserably. Epic failure from a phone company don’t you think? Maybe I should climb to the nearest high point (None Tree Hill) anytime I need to avail myself of the “service” and I do use that term extremely loosely.

Vodafone coverage here varies from “no bars so bend over and kiss your own botty goodbye” to “five bars but we’re only teasing – look again no bars!” I can’t remember the last time I made a call that I actually chose to end out of my own free will. I used to kid myself that it was better at one end of the house if I leaned out the window and held my breath. But the wind would change and then it was better at the other end of the house if I climbed on top of the wardrobe…pathetic I know, but the weather does make a difference.

Calls to the friendly and helpful Vodafone mother ship revealed the good news, my area was a known black spot, so at least I could console myself that loads of people around me were similarly screwed. Then the bad news, there were no immediate plans to do a damned thing about it. So I took responsibility and upgraded my old Motorola to a new Nokia with even more G’s on offer – did that help? Not a bit. So from time to time I complain, as I’m a masochist and I love hearing the same story, and sometimes they credit my account $20. When that happens I tell the operator that I’d really rather they kept the $20 and fixed the network, that one always gets a giggle. It’s true, the old ones really are the best ones.

I’m tempted to call them again but last time the offered to sell me my very own femtocell in the form of their trusty Sure Signal unit. This comes with a catch not previously mentioned. Ready? I’d have to connect to one of their broadband packages to make the thing work. So get this, the phone company that can’t, and won’t, deliver me a working cellular network in my area now wants me to buy another service from them in order to make the first service work. That’d be madness on my part, don’t you think? I might end up with two services that don’t work and a new box to throw out the window, along with all the toys from my cot.

As luck would have it, it’s not my only cellphone, that diminutive but powerful Nokia struggling so hard to reach out on the Vodafone network. I’ve also got a very yummy BlackBerry from the other big telco, the one with the much maligned, but in my world extremely robust, XT network. My BlackBerry works in every room of the house. No gymnastics, no leaning out of windows, no trying to join the conversational dots by figuring out what the person on the other end of the phone said based on only every third word getting through. Just end to end unbroken conversations with pace and nuance and humour, conversations where the pauses are for breath or laughter instead of to check the display to see where your caller disappeared to, or to figure out exactly how many words of your last carefully considered sentence drifted frustratingly into dropped call oblivion. And when these conversations reach their end point, the decision to say goodbye is mutually agreed by both parties – rather than arbitrarily switched off by cell sites that simply can’t reliably hold on to each other.

Come on Vodafone, it’s 2011 AD and people don’t say “hello, hello, hello?” and “are you still there?” on the telephone any more. That crap left town on the same bus as the party line.

So how about spending less money on marketing and branding and sponsorship and using it to build a reliable working cellular network in the city where over a million of us hang out?

Use your money, not ours, some of us can recognise SureSignal for the crock it is. Or maybe stop pretending you’re in the voice business and run a text only network. I reckon you could pull that off, eh? TIM STEELE

Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here


  1. Tim I can’t agree more. I sometimes have to make 2 or 3 calls before I can actually complete a conservation, and this is well within the Auckland metropolitan area. So Vodafone are making a killing from me! Femtocell by the way, sounds like some sort of feminine protection device, not a gadget to boost Vodafone’s lousy cellphone coverage…

  2. Hey Gary, you have to wonder how many silently screaming dissatisfied Vodafone network users are out there, you know all too well that we’re not the only ones trapped in the matrix…

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