Using a Three Home Signal Femtocell to improve a Mobile Phone Signal

Mobile Phone Cell Tower

Mobile Phone Cell TowerA couple of years ago now I broke away from the typical UK Mobile Network arrangement of signing up for a multi-year fixed contract with subsidised handset, and moved to a monthly SIM deal with UK mobile operator Three. I typically upgrade my Smartphone handset every 7-15 months, so being locked into an expensive long-term contract no longer made sense.

My experience with Three has been mostly positive, with good customer service (albeit through an offshore call centre with sometimes difficult to understand Indian accents) and good service, matched with some of the most competitive pricing for a voice and data network.

Three network coverage inside buildings

Unfortunately, of all the UK mobile networks, Three has the poorest coverage inside buildings. This isn’t normally an issue when I’m in a City, such as at home in Birmingham, but when I’m in a more rural location with poorer network coverage I often don’t get a mobile signal at all.

Such is the case when I’m at my home away from home in Lowton in Cheshire. I’ve blogged before about my experiment in finding free Wi-Fi in a rural location and this lack of coverage applies to the mobile networks – I only tend to get a mobile signal in one room within my house, an upstairs bedroom, making it a frustrating experience to try to make and receive calls.

Putting my geek hat on, I started investigating ways to improve my mobile signal when indoors.

Mobile Phone Repeaters

Having consulted the Ofcom Site Finder web-site I determined my nearest Three mobile phone base station mast was less than 1/2 mile away from my house.

There are plenty of web-sites offering mobile phone repeater units. The principle is simple. You install a small repeater unit, which catches the weak mobile phone signal through an external antennae, amplifies and boosts the signal, and then distributes this signal through a second antennae which allows you to receive a strong mobile signal inside your home or office.

The Three UK networks works on the 2100MHZ signal band, so I bought a 3G 2100MHZ Mobile Phone Signal Repeater Booster from Mobile Repeater Shop and tested it in a variety of locations within my house, all to no avail. My mobile signal wasn’t boosted in the slightest.

Whether I’m missing out on something required to make the system work (I have e-mailed Mobile Repeater Shop for advice, but never received a response) or whether the system is a cheap Chinese piece of rubbish remains to be seen.

For anyone considering buying a mobile phone signal booster, I’d urge you to check out the PC Pro web-site story warning about the legality of mobile repeaters. The unit I bought was sold as “CE Approved”, but when it arrived the unit bore no such stamp, leaving me to wonder about the legality of the unit. It’s unlikely I’d get a knock at the door from Ofcom, but I’d prefer to stay within the letter of the law regardless.

Trying to obtain a Three Home Signal

My next step was to investigate the Three Home Signal device. The device is a Femtocell unit, which in layman’s terms means that it plugs into your Broadband Internet, creates a short-range base station to cover your home or office with a strong mobile signal, and transfers any calls, SMS or data from your mobile phone via the Internet. In a nutshell, you carry on using your mobile phone as normal but in order to compensate for the weak signal from your local mobile phone mast, you use a sort of Voice-over-IP system to make and receive calls.

The Home Signal is not available to buy “off the shelf” so I telephoned Three to explain my lack of signal and to enquire about the Home Signal device, and had to spend some considerable time speaking to a very pleasant lady in Three Technical Support in India who did some troubleshooting – asking questions about my handset, whether I could receive a signal outside, etc. I was told there was a problem with the Three network mast in my area that was being worked on. I explained that I’d experienced the poor signal for 2 years or more, so this was unlikely to be the issue.

At the end of the call I was promised a call back within 48 hours from Second Line Support to investigate further.

Later that same day, Second Line Support called me and worked though some more troubleshooting questions. A little frustrating, as I knew the issue was signal related, not handset related, but I understand why they need to ask the questions.

A third call later, and the Second Line Support engineer agreed that sending me a Three Home Signal device would likely help. The cost was £50, and the device was shipped out for next day delivery.

Setting up the Three Home Signal

Three Home SignalSure enough, the Home Signal arrived the next day. A small device with a signal LED that flashes Red or Green to advise you on status, you plug the Home Signal into your Broadband Router via Ethernet cable, plug in the power cable – and the unit does the rest.

There are setup instructions included, and Three provide an Home Signal setup video on-line too.

My first attempt to setup the Home Signal failed with the device flashing Red five times in succession – the Three Using Home Signal help page advised me this was because I needed to plug in a Smart Card underneath the unit – something that the setup instructions didn’t mention.

My second attempt saw the unit continuously flash green for an hour or more. I telephoned Three Home Signal support on 0800 358 4828 and was told that the Home Signal unit hadn’t been registered (another step missing from the instructions). 10 minutes later, Three Support had registered the unit, and advised me to power the device off and on again and then to wait while it connected to the Three network.

Unfortunately, after another hour the unit was still flashing a green light meaning it hadn’t connected. I used a paper clip to press and hold the units reset button, the LED flashed red, and then went back to a flashing green light. I waited, and waited…

Another ‘phone call to Three Home Signal Support, and they sent a remote reset to the device which caused it to reboot 3 times. On the third time, I saw a solid green light meaning all was well. I restarted my Smartphone and instead of no signal, I had a full 5 bars!

Using the Three Home Signal

There’s not a lot to say about using the Three Home Signal – it just sits in the corner and you use your mobile phone handset as normal, making and receiving calls and SMS with a strong signal.

In use, calls made and received had a slight “Satellite delay” (around 1 second) when talking, but nothing that was too distracting.

Walking outside the Home Signal range and then back into range seems to be seamless, in much the same way you walk between normal base stations outside.

SMS messages are sent and received via your handset as normal.

It seems a bit illogical to use your Three tariff data allowance to send 3G via your Broadband, so if you use Wi-Fi at home, leave that on.

Notes on the Three Home Signal

Some things to be aware of. The Home Signal is only for use at the address you register it at (and to ensure that if you dial emergency services on 999 then they know where you are) try to use it elsewhere and it likely won’t work.

The Home Signal will also only work with Three mobile handsets that have been registered with it (presumably to stop your neighbours nicking your signal and bandwidth). You can easily add up to 24 numbers with Three Home Signal via an on-line form that is processed within 24 hours.

The Home Signal will only work with four concurrent handsets at a time, and won’t boost signals from any other network, or non-registered handsets.

It doesn’t use much bandwidth, around 37mb for an hours call. Negligible, unless you’re on a metered Broadband plan.

Conclusion

It was a little bit of a pain to jump through the Three Technical Support hoops to buy a Three Home Signal rather than being able to buy one directly, but I understand that there are issues that prevent Three doing this.

Once I’d persuaded Three to send me a Home Signal, the setup was simple albeit frustrating. The setup instructions could do with updating to include minor but important points such as the need to insert the Smart Card and telephone Three to register the unit.

However, once the Home Signal was up and running it made a vast improvement – I can now use my Smartphone anywhere in the house without fear of missing calls.

I know Vodafone provide a similar Femtocell device in the UK called Sure Signal, and Verizon offer something similar for US customers too.

If you’re suffering with a poor mobile signal at home, it’s worth contacting your network to see if they offer something similar to help you as the Three Home Signal helped me.

 

photo credit: Michael Holden via photopin cc

Comments

  • Richard Tubb2020-01-31 18:41:02

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Frequency2020-01-30 21:37:20

    Cel-fi offer Ofcom licence exempt (legal) Mobile Boosters for all UK Networks. Brand website www.cel-fi.com UK partner www.signalboosters.co.uk Indoor coverage is generally a big issue on all networks.

  • Richard Tubb2020-01-30 20:16:22

    Ed - I'm so sorry to hear about this. I've Tweeted @ThreeUK to point their PR teams attention to your comment. You can see the conversation at https://twitter.com/tubblog/status/1222977170932404224

  • Ed2020-01-30 18:51:24

    Richard this is really helpful, or, at least, it was. My daughter has had similar difficulties to the ones you mention at the beginning of your piece. She is a 3 customer and would love a 'Home Signal' device. Unfortunately 3, despite getting my daughter to extend her contract - by promising they would supply a femtocell - ratted on their promise. It appears to have become 3 policy not to provide femtocells - no matter how bad the local signal is. I always believed that smaller operators can be relied on to try harder; that no longer appears to be 3's policy.

  • Richard Tubb2016-11-10 18:52:56

    Chris - ouch! I'm sorry to hear about that. I hope you get your issues sorted. I've recently moved from Three to the EE network and found their coverage to be superb, indoors and outdoors.

  • Chris2016-11-02 12:57:00

    Now in talks with THREE. Vodafone, EE and O2 all have 4G indoors at my home. According to THREE website, they too have coverage, so bought into THREE for my wife. I am now a very unpopular husband, as no signal indoors, despite all other networks being fine. When I checked OFCOM, they said no 4G from THREE in my area. Grrr! Feel I've been misled hugely. Only 1 month into 24 month contract, paying for no calls and no data at home. Waiting on phone call from THREE in next 48 hours to sort out.

  • Richard Tubb2016-01-20 08:44:39

    Thanks for the feedback Deborah. I'm a bit perplexed as to why Three make the Home Signal box a "secret". If customers are prepared to pay for it and it improves the service, why not sell it? I'd be interested to hear Three's response to this question.

  • Deborah Peppin2016-01-19 15:58:15

    Interesting blog-- thanks! I've just extracted a Home Signal Box from 3. I was using the Three in Touch app, with no problems at all, until I updated my Android phone to Lollipop, when it totally failed for voice calls. LOTS of being passed around, endless reboots, SIM removals, re-installings of the app -- nothing worked. I have a SIM-only contract and they did require me to contract for a year (I was on rolling monthly). It seems the box will be free and I got a 50% off for 3 months deal,. So far, I'm a happy bunny. As long as it works! I find it funny that the "2nd level" I got to was called Home Signal" but they speak to you as though you have no idea it is a possibility to be given one! It a deep dark secret. I was careful not actually ask for one -- I let them go on and on with tests while I got more and more insistent that I wanted a fix!

  • Richard Tubb2015-02-16 20:44:11

    Al - I understand your frustration. I was initially given the "There is an issue locally" excuse myself, but after pressing with the question "Has there been an issue for a few months now?" Three allowed me to buy the Femtocell. I'm not sure why it's not on general sale -- I'm sure many users would like to buy one to alleviate poor coverage.

  • Al2015-02-16 17:19:19

    I live in a black spot with zero signal from any provider. Vodafone allowed me to purchase a Fem2Cell which has worked well for years. I signed up to Three assuming I could just buy one. They just won't let me have one. "There is an issue locally".. B*@ll0ck5 there is!!??!! Even their coverage map shows no coverage!?!?! Now I am a new customer who has already told my friends that Three customer service is TERRIBLE and I truly believe I've been lied to. TERRIBLE start with this joker company. I suppose I have to have another few phone calls on hold for hours before I can get this resolved. WHY are they so ridiculously tight with these things?! I'd drop £100 on one in an instant.

  • yessuz2015-01-01 17:39:23

    Hi. I also have black home signal box. It is connected via TP-link 1043nd wifi router and BT unlimited. It has two phones connected. Connection speed is at least 40 mbps down and 11 up, with 11ms ping. HSB is located about 1m away from wifi router. What I have noticed, that almost 30-50% of our Incoming calls (absolutely randomly) goes straight to voice mail. For both phones. Phones show full bars connectivity, indication light on HSB is green, but calls go straight to voice mail. It is very frustrating. I have contacted Three and they have reset it few times, and after my 5th call they are investigating the issue. Have you or anyone experienced same issue? I have very patchy coverage at home without HSB (can have 2 bars at one spot and no bars at all one meter away.)

  • Richard Tubb2014-11-18 08:46:54

    Andrew - thanks for the feedback and while the Home Signal box is only supposed to have a range covering a typical home, you raise an interesting question. I understand that only phones that have been registered to a Home Signal can connect to it, so while it is unlikely that other phones would be connecting and using bandwidth, I guess it is possible with an incorrectly configured Home Signal. I'd be interested to hear more of your findings! Keep us posted!

  • Andrew Pearse2014-11-15 06:19:38

    Thank you Richard for this information. My Three sim-only PAYG service works reasonably well except one location where I work. At that factory and offices in the Birmingham area there is a good signal but calls and texts cannot be made nor received. Many staff at the factory have already given up on Three because it does not work. As soon as I discovered the problem in May 2014 I reported it and I have continued to report it week after week. The customer support is very good, helpful and sympathetic, but the technical response has been wholly inadequate. I recently started investigating the problem in more detail using an Android app called Netmonitor which shows me the base stations I am connected to. I was surprised to find that the problematic connection was not a mast, but something inside someone's house in the middle of a housing estate. I believe it may be a home signal device. Despite assertions that these devices will only work with registered phones, it seems there are many of these devices in that housing estate and my phone successfully uses all of them, except the one that always seems to be the one my phone locks on to. This problem could explain why some people with femtocells experience high internet bandwidth usage, acting as a public base station. I will try to get a Home Signal box so I can test it, but I would be very interested to hear from anyone about how these actually work. What range can you get with your Home Signal Box? Do other people use your Home Signal Box without needing to be registered? If not, what happens, does their phone appear to ignore the Home Signal box or does it show a strong signal but can't make and receive calls? If my problem is not an isolated one, it could explain why many people have problems getting Three to work in the Birmingham area, perhaps in other cities too.

  • Ken Macfarlane2014-10-13 19:43:09

    My saga continues: Three says that I have to open these ports http: 80 https 443 upd dns 53 ntp 123 isakmp 500 esp 4500 the last 2 of which, I've never heard of, & neither has BT's home hub! & BT's HH4 doesn't support any protocol other than tcp, udp or "other". BT say that they don't support 3rd party devices (like Xbox's), so I think I'll be living Three: life's too short! Three say that only 2/10 customers have to do this, but I suspect that BT's HH's are the most common type in Britain. HH5's don't sound terribly different.

  • Richard Tubb2014-10-09 11:57:21

    Thanks for the tip Ken - that'll be helpful to anyone with a Three Home Signal and a BT Homehub!

  • Ken Macfarlane2014-10-09 11:14:29

    With a BT Homehub, the MTU (max. trasnmission unit length) has to be increased to at least 1500. This is the number of bytes per tcp/ip packet (I thought it was 1560 by default). Three told me this on my 3rd time of calling to complain that the box wasn't working. 2nd time round, it was simply that they hadn't registered it with their network, even although they said that they had. If I thought that any of the other phone companies would be any better, I'd change!

  • Richard Tubb2014-10-01 17:58:08

    Hi - I'd be surprised if the Femtocell caused this type of usage, but I guess it's not impossible. Can any other readers of the blog cast any light on this issue?

  • Roop2014-09-30 18:45:20

    I've had a similar Orange/EE home signal box for 18months now. (Femtocell). Works great for 2x iphones and visitors on Orange (with the right wifi code). Over the last 5months I've noticed my Broadband usage being sky high - exceeding the limit. Each month on my broadband (BT) there is over 30GB of UPLOAD. Can these booster boxes cause that sort of broadband usage? Has anybody noticed this with theirs?? I Can't find any other causes! It's probably BT and their metering - but they deny it!

  • Richard Tubb2014-09-24 10:32:04

    Dano - my pleasure. Thanks for taking the time to leave feedback!

  • Dano2014-09-24 02:49:18

    Thanks for the detailed post. It's very helpful.

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