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Mobile signal boosters: reviews of the legal options

Posted on 16 Aug 2013 at 09:30

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.

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User comments

No mention of 3's Home Signal?

3 network also offers what it calls "Home Signal" - a neat, small box that like the Vodafone offering, needs to be plugged into your home network to piggyback off your ADSL. Have been using one for 6 months - works well, and I not only have a good, strong, reliable signal in the home which I have never had before, but as the article says, also get much better battery life from the phone.

By escoulon on 16 Aug 2013

No mention of 3's Home Signal?

If you are on the 3 network, they offer (if you ask the right customer service person) a "Home Signal" box - a neat little box that, like the Vodafone offering, piggybacks off your ADSL line. Works well giving a strong, stable, reliable signal - something I've never had before. As the article says, it also significantly reduces mobile battery drain too

By escoulon on 16 Aug 2013

Apologies for the double posting

Apologies for the double posting - looked like original comment had been lost so tried a second time only to see both appear. Oops.

By escoulon on 16 Aug 2013

Sure Signal

We have a couple of Vodafone sure signal boxes (one of the first type and one of the newer ones) at two of our small rural offices where there is no signal normally, and they've proved very useful. Not had any real problems with them - it was simply a case of registering the numbers with Vodafone and plugging them in.

By valeofyork on 16 Aug 2013

More pics..

Great article, lots of info well presented, need more pics though.. This is the type of article that keeps me coming back to PCPro.

By pinero50 on 17 Aug 2013

buttonz

I had a vodafone femtocel on two occassions, needed details from Sky on the router settings to make it work which they refused to reveal-who was Sky's preferred mobile partner vodafone- money returned!

By buttonz on 17 Aug 2013

Another option is an external aerial, someone I know uses a galaxy s2 mobile as main contact phone for his work, unfortunately whilst it works well at his home/office is barely usable at his workshop, a hole drilled in the back and an external aerial from boatersphone gives him a rock solid signal.

By colinday2 on 17 Aug 2013

rippedoff

I have been with Orange for years, now they have stopped UMA phones!
They talk about a signal booster box, but that was in Aug. and you have to qualify I.e. a no signsl area, and it's down to customer services. I'm still waiting!
Their Retail shop staff have very poor product knowledge. Has anybody any any info. about their signal boosters?
l'm still stuck using my uma HTC.

By rippedoff on 19 Nov 2013

want a legal solution...?

Smarter Mobile works with all the UK mobile phone networks connecting businesses with poor indoor mobile signals. If you've already installed a distributed antenna system and had previously switched on illegal boosters - our advice is to turn them off immediately and contact us. In most cases we can use your existing DAS system but we will install legal operator systems.
www.smartermobile.com

By SmarterMobile on 9 Dec 2013

bigdave 1923

The thing that "escoulon" failed to mention was that provided you are able to satisfy 3's technical team that you genuinely do have poor reception, the Home Signal Booster is free - Vodafone's offering costs £100 = I know I've been there.

I agree with "escoulon" that 3's offering really does work and we have boosted our signal form "1 bar" occasionally to "4/5 bars" regularly with battery life improved by over 50%.

More importantly it really is "Plug and Play", no messing around with altering router settings etc. It was up and running within minutes despite the cautionary warning that it could take up to an hour to "settle down".

Well done 3 for actually providing proper effective support, and a fully working solution, for it's customers rather than dismissing our concerns, as every other carrier has done - we know we've tried them all

By djt1st on 23 Jan 2014

EE Signal Box

I got a Signal Box from T-Mobile last year after they 'rationalised' their masts post merger with Orange. I could barely get a signal anywhere in the house. I called customer services and they sent me a box for free. It's made by Nokia and once its EMEI was registered it started working after about 30 minutes. Why it takes so long to start I'm not sure but this seems to be a feature of all signal boxes from all the networks.
One boon is that you don't have to register the phone numbers connected, so anyone with T-Mobile, Orange or even Virgin which all use the EE network can use it. This might mean your neighbours end up connecting. I remember this used to happen at my sisters house, which had a terrible signal, then I started noticing a better reception and when making a receiving calls I got the telltale tones that signal boxes give at the start of a call. The box gives 5 bar service within about 10 meters radius.

My house is over three floors and I've got wired ethernet on the top and ground floors. This left me with a choice of having a signal on the top two floors or the bottom two floors. The box couldn't quite stretch to every floor. I did consider putting it on the middle floor and using a power plug but couldn't think of somewhere to hide the box. It's about the size of a small but think paperback with a separate power supply.

In the end I bought another signal box on eBay for £140 as I couldn't talk my son into complaining to his network - Orange - and getting another free box.

I can't say that the support from T-Mobile has been great. I had problems a few weeks back when no-one could hear me on calls. Customer support initially suggested resetting the boxes, which made no difference and one of them refused to connect anymore. I worried that the one I'd bought through eBay may have been taken out by this. A further call to the Network people at TMob led them to tell me I couldn't have two boxes, that neither of them seemed to be registered to my address or my phone (but their computers were playing up) and their only advice was to 'leave the boxes off for 12 hours and then they might work.'
In the end it turned out I had a dicky broadband connection and everything started working again once it was fixed.

Good to hear that Three have their own signal boxes and that their tech support seems good.

O2 also offer signal boxes but you have to have a business account to qualify for one. I was considering changing networks and did some research in case my thick house walls would prevent O2 reception. One adviser did suggest that if I took out a business sim-only deal on a 30 day contract I could get the signal box then cancel the contract and continue to use the box with a non-business phone. However, you have to register the phone numbers like Vodafone and whether you might have difficulty down the road I don't know.

By Colin_Thames on 7 Feb 2014

Any updates?

It's some time since this was published. Since then Orange UMA/Signal Boost seems to be on its way out. O2 TuGo seems to do much the same. I need to use UMA at home and in when I'm away at work on my Galaxy S2 and it just works. I'd love to upgrade my handset but would need some sort of booster.
Any chance of persuading O2 to allow a proper review of TuGo??

By filkett on 8 May 2014

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Paul Ockenden

Paul Ockenden

Paul is a contributing editor to PC Pro specialising in smartphones, mobile broadband and all things wireless. He's technical director of a combined IT and marketing company, which works on websites and intranets for several blue-chip clients.

Read more More by Paul Ockenden

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