Vodafone Access Gateway 3G
3G networking for cave dwellers
Review The fuss surrounding femtocells is hard to avoid, analyst Berg Insight reckons 70 million of the things will be in use by 2014, but Vodafone's Access Gateway is the first femto product to hit the UK. It’s essentially an access point base station for mobiles, so if you want Vodafone coverage where there is none, then it's hard to dispute that this product is the way to do it.
Vodafone's Access Gateway
As it stands though, the industry will have to find a better business model before we're all running our own base stations. The premise is a tiny base station that routes both incoming and outgoing calls over your own broadband connection. In doing so, it is effectively billing you twice for the bandwidth but, nevertheless, allows you to use a mobile phone in places where no signal reached before. Vodafone offers no discount on calls made over your femtocell, and data usage counts against your fair-use cap in the usual way.
The Access Gateway is also a 3G device, 2G handsets won't be able to connect to it, or use its functions. It is built by Alcatel-Lucent using chips from picoChip and comes with an external PSU and an Ethernet cable. On the box are four LEDs, the top two indicate if the power is on and the internet connection is valid, the bottom then indicates if the femtocell has successfully connected to the Vodafone back end, while the one above shows activity.
The really clever bit of femtocell technology is the auto-sensing it does to make sure it's not going to interfere with the macro network, or other nearby femtocells. Our box was up and running within an hour, but Vodafone warns that this process can take up to six hours, presumably a worse-case scenario.
You also need to register the phones you want to use with the box, through the Vodafone web site. Simply enter the femtocell serial number and up to 30 Vodafone numbers with whom you're prepared to share your broadband. However, the cell will only support four at users at a time. That's supposed to take up to 24 hours, presumably another worst-case scenario as we were up and running in about 30 minutes.
Register up to 30 handets, but only four can access the connection simultaneously
And up and running we were – all the handsets we used reported a strong 3G, HSPA, signal and data rates seems to confirm that. The range isn't terribly good, about 100 metres in the clear and we had to relocate the cell more centrally to cover a modest house, but comparable to Wi-Fi in our experience and solid once connected.
Voice calls and data sessions were smooth and handoff to the macro network worked perfectly – calls and data sessions transferred seamlessly. The return journey was more bumpy; we never had a call transfer to the femtocell despite becoming seriously degraded, and even cut off, though the handset did pick up the femtocell quickly once the call was over, but we expected a smooth handoff.
Detective work: 3G signal, but is it true or make-believe?
Vodafone recommends a minimum of 1Mb/sec broadband for the Access Gateway, and provides a web site where one can test one's connection to see if it has the requisite speed. If you have that sort of bandwidth then things should work perfectly, but the Gateway has no priority of traffic across the Internet, so it's best-effort only. We throttled the bandwidth down to about a quarter of the recommendation and still had a perfectly usable service, which only choked when we started some streaming video over the same connection.
Calls using the cell will count towards your broadband fair-use limit, though you would have to make an awful lot of voice calls for that to become an issue, more likely you'll hit Vodafone's limit when using the 3G dongle built into your laptop, and it will be interesting to see if Vodafone really gets heavy with customers overusing their own broadband connection.
Handset battery life wasn't effected greatly, we had hoped to seen an improvement as the handsets wouldn't have to reach out to distant cells, but the constant use of 3G seems to negate that. On the other hand, our Samsung Omnia decided one day to conserve power by shutting down its 3G radio and was thus unable to get a connection despite being right beside the 3G-only femtocell.
So if you want Vodafone coverage in a dead zone, and have broadband, then the Vodafone Access Gateway is the only option. Still, every single operator in the UK is testing femtocells at the moment, and at least one company is planning a generic service, so while its the only option today that's set to change very soon. Vodafone is also pricing this very high, at £160 or £15 a month, to see if punters will jump at that price [since this was written the price has now dropped to £5 a month]. Wait a year and you'll get a free femtocell, and probably discounted calls, but that would be another 12 months without a usable mobile phone. ®
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