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Vodafone silences punters in mini-mast upgrade bungle

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Vodafone customers relying on Sure Signal boxes for mobile connectivity have been hit by an update that left them less connected than ever.

The boxes are femtocells – small cellular base stations – hooked up to punters' broadband connections to boost Voda's phone network in areas with patchy coverage.

Not every Sure Signal box was affected, but a vocal minority of users have taken to the Vodafone forums to complain that the overnight update knocked out their connectivity, though some are reporting that the recommended turn-it-off-and-back-on-again procedure fixes the problem.

The update was sent out on Tuesday morning and promptly prevented many users from making outgoing calls. Those seeking support were frustrated by a lack of official response (echoed in our own inability to get anything official from Vodafone on the matter) with a recommendation to try power-cycling everything (including the broadband router) finally getting posted on Tuesday evening.

The problem is that Sure Signal, in common with other femtocell devices, has to listen for a long time before deciding on a radio frequency to use. When it was launched, a Sure Signal box could take six hours to boot up, and while that's now down to around an hour, the customers still felt they were being fobbed off with the request.

Sure Signal is Vodafone's branded femtocell, a tiny phone mast which routes calls over the public internet using the customer's broadband connection. When launched it broke the belief that femtocells could only be deployed where the mobile operator also provided the broadband connection to ensure quality of service.

By operating over the public internet, Sure Signal can't guarantee quality, but given the speed of most internet connections, and the minimal requirements of a voice call, there's normally enough bandwidth to spare (Vodafone recommends a minimum of 1MB/sec).

But as market leader Vodafone has suffered from more that its share of technical hiccups, upsetting many Sure Signal users who are required to buy the box, and to pay for calls as well as paying for the bandwidth over which they're carried. Other operators, including O2 and Three, also have femtocell products but don't promote or sell them, only offering them as freebies to valued customers who complain loudly enough about a lack of coverage.

So slow has the femtocell revolution become that the Femtocell Forum has renamed itself the "Small Cell Forum" as the technology developed for femtos percolates upwards into micro-, mini- and macro-network components. But femtocells do continue to slowly propagate – only coming to our attention when they fail, as Vodafone's did on Tuesday. ®

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