Mobile signal boosters: reviews of the legal options

Mobile signal

Paul Ockenden tests a couple of legal methods of boosting your mobile signal

Although most mobile reception boosters on sale in the UK – particularly via the web – are illegal to use, there are a couple of legal options, namely femtocells and so-called "smart repeaters".

I’ve tested one of each over the past few months, but first, let’s totally nail the legal issue, since I know from your tweets and emails that some of you are still confused by the rules in this area. We know femtocells supplied by the mobile networks are legal, but what about mobile boosters, especially smart repeaters?

These mobile boosters continue to occupy a grey area. In particular, the official advice from UK telecoms regulator Ofcom is confusing. For example, one page on its website claims "you won’t find these devices for sale in the High Street or through your mobile phone company", and "if you are having coverage problems, don’t be tempted to try and boost your signal with a mobile repeater". But a different page on the same site says the regulator has "agreed variations to the MNOs licences to facilitate the deployment of... smart repeaters technologies (sic) that some operators are, or will shortly be, offering to their customers".

So, are smart repeaters legal or not? Are they only legal when obtained from your network operator, as the latter page implies? And are they "Ofcom-approved" (a phrase you’ll often see used in reviews)? I tried to untangle these contradictions by speaking to a couple of parties in the industry, including Andrew Williams, EMEA technical support manager at Nextivity, the leading manufacturer of smart repeaters. I started by asking him whether Nextivity’s devices are Ofcom-approved, as many reviews seem to imply.

"Technically, Ofcom doesn’t actually approve anything," he said. "It does, however, take an opinion on what’s legal or not, and can take enforcement action against devices used illegally. The important things to note regarding smart repeaters are: they aren’t licence-exempt like a phone, therefore they must operate within the terms of the mobile operator’s licence conditions (only on its specific frequencies and not interfering with other frequencies); and the network must be able to control them (in practice, this means the network must be able to turn the repeater off if Ofcom tells it to)."

I also asked Ofcom for clarification of its position, given the confusing and contradictory statements on its website. It seems Ofcom is trying to move towards a position where smart repeaters are allowed, but what isn’t clear is whether you have to obtain them from a mobile network, or whether it’s okay to buy via third-party suppliers.

An Ofcom spokesperson said: "The use of a smart repeater may be authorised under the licence of an operator when connecting to their network. The device would not necessarily have to be supplied by the network, but its use would have to be with their agreement. It would be helpful for the supplier’s website and point-of-sale advice to be clear on this."

That last point is certainly true: if you look at the companies selling Nextivity’s Cel-Fi RS2 smart repeater online, none that I could find make it clear whether they’re selling the equipment with the approval of the mobile networks or not. After chatting with the relevant parties, I’m fairly certain – although it was never explicitly stated – that smart repeaters on sale via third parties are indeed network-approved.

Ofcom’s spokesperson also reinforced a point made by Nextivity’s Williams: "Although smart repeaters may be installed in user premises, a key feature is that they are monitored and controlled by the host network to ensure they operate only within the terms and conditions of the network operators’ licences under which they are authorised. Other types of standalone repeater which are neither covered by the network licence nor exempted from licensing are not authorised, and their use would be illegal."

As it becomes more widely known that only smart repeaters are legal in the UK, I’d expect many of the websites selling illegal kit to start flogging their products as legitimate smart repeaters. After all, they’ve no qualms about making other bogus claims about legality, or, in many cases, falsely showing the PC Pro logo on their website and saying we’ve recommended them. So, please be careful when buying a smart repeater – if the kit has a Yagi antenna or a long coaxial lead, or if it’s a metal box that looks a bit like those amplifiers young men fit in their Citroëns, it’s almost certainly the illegal type of booster.

You also need to bear in mind that, even if you buy a legal smart repeater, you could end up paying £500 for the kit, only to have it remotely deactivated by your mobile network, whether you like it or not.

Back in the real world

Hopefully that’s the legal position clarified, but how do these devices perform in the real world? The two I’ve been testing are the latest Sure Signal femtocell from Vodafone and the Cel-Fi RS2 smart repeater from Nextivity, both of which are updates to devices I last reported on a few years ago.

The Sure Signal I’ve been testing is actually the third version of this device, but Vodafone doesn’t use version numbers in its sales literature – each iteration is simply marketed as Sure Signal.