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

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