back to article Scottish Highlands get blanket 3G coverage

Femtocells, which extend 3G networks using domestic broadband, have been around for a few years now, and while only one operator will take your money for one, the others will furnish you with one if you complain loudly enough. Now that most of the big UK providers each have their own gear, we thought we'd see whose tiny cell …


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  1. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

    SFR in France (once part of the Voda empire) also offer Femtocells, you just have to ask. They charge 60 euros, but credit that to your mobile bill so the Femtocell is effectively free. You can order online, giving up to 5 mobile numbers, and the box is delivered within a day or two, already setup. Just plugin, and after a few minutes (in my case) the operator logo on the mobile changes from "SFR" to "SFR Femto".

    The box is designed to look like the SFR broadband box, and if you have broadband servive from SFR the two just clip together. Otherwise it's a simple ethernet connection back to the router. Works with any broadband provider, but comes with a warning that if they detect it being moved to another location after initial setup they may disable it. They will disable it if it is used outside France (I haven't tried it through a tunel from elsewhere. Yet.)

    I haven't tried range checks or handoffs yet. In my case I do have a decent SFR signal at home, but there is only one cell mast in range. When it goes off-air, as it does from time to time (storms, lightning, etc) I lose cell connectivity so I decided to try the Femtocell as a backup, since it's free :) So far, so good.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      I too am very please with SFR's FemtoBox.

      Gives coverage downstairs when previously there was none.

      Doesn't work with PAYG phones though.

  2. Neil Barnes Silver badge

    Not sure I understand this...

    Am I correct that if (for the sake of example) my father, out in the Wilds of Skye and with a network mobile service only available when standing on the roof of the house with the moon in the right phase, can attach one of these to his BT broadband box and suddenly mobiles will work around the house?

    If that's the case, I want one. Now.

    1. Paw Bokenfohr

      Re: Not sure I understand this...

      Yes, you understand correctly. Assuming the mobile phones are of the "right" network and are pre-registered for the Femto.

    2. Pooka

      Re: Not sure I understand this...

      That's pretty much it, yeah. Plug it into your broadband connection, all phonecalls on the mobile get a proper data signal.

      I get no data signal in my house at all on my mobile now I don't have a SureSignal box (but I use the wifi, so no biggie...) but with a SureSignal I get a decent connection everywhere. Of course, when I speak to Vodafone about shoddy coverage they say it should be perfectly fine where I live, but I don't, and I'm not prepared to pay £100 for something of limited use to me when I can just use my wifi....

      1. Wize

        Re: Not sure I understand this...


        Vodafone think their maps are 100% accurate and don't believe anyone questioning them. When I tried telling them, they told me to check my handset wasn't faulty (reboot it, reseat the sim card) even though I told them it was all phones on their network when used in my house, not just mine.

    3. justnmbr

      Re: Not sure I understand this...

      that's exactly right.

      1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

        Re: Not sure I understand this...

        Thank you gents. Now all I have to do is winkle something out of BT that talks to whatever PAYG mobile my father happens to have this year, and also my Virgin.

        1. Annihilator

          Re: Not sure I understand this...

          "Now all I have to do is winkle something out of BT that talks to whatever PAYG mobile my father happens to have this year, and also my Virgin"

          Not quite, it has to come from the mobile operator in question - has nothing to do with BT (or whichever broadband provider). They're also single-network only, so would only work for (say) Vodafone. In fact Vodafone seems the likeliest solution for you, as the others provide them only to "valuable" customers who complain enough. Seems unlikely your father would spend enough for them to care?

          1. Mayhem

            Re: Not sure I understand this...

            Yep, and if you try and bodge something up with one of the overseas models that supports more than one network, you'll have the cell providers AND Ofcom come down on you like a ton of bricks for running an unlicenced radio device. Or so a customer at a previous role found.

            Turns out that Windsor is more of a mobile blackspot than the highlands. I guess the locals don't like seeing transmitters anywhere.

            Femtocells are one network, with pre-registered phones only. No walk in connections, no roaming. And as stated above, veeery picky about their internet connection. Be wary.

    4. techmind

      Re: Not sure I understand this...

      And you (or your father) needs to have a 3G-capable (UMTS) phone.

      The femtocells are effcetively mini-3G base-stations, and don't support 2G (basic GSM) technology.

  3. justnmbr

    Voda Femtocell

    I've used a Vodafone Femtocell for nearly 5 years now and it is absolutely great - when it works! It is very fussy about some routers (or maybe they are fussy about it?) in particular Linksys routers don't work with it. I am moving to Sky Broadband today so I expect it to stop working.

    The trouble is the complete and utter lack of support when things go wrong - Vodafone will consistently blame your equipment / BB supplier and the supplier will want nothing to do with the problem.

    There are a few forums that will tell you which ports to open and how to do it if you are having problems, however I've never had any success with these, if the router doesn't work first time I have found it won't work at all

    1. I. Aproveofitspendingonspecificprojects

      Re: Voda Femtocell

      Check inside for the word AMSTRAD and you will know what happened to all SKY's dodgy kit.

    2. Annihilator

      Re: Voda Femtocell

      I find mine needs a reboot on an almost weekly basis. Occasionally the DSL connection reboots and the Voda box doesn't seem capable of reestablishing a link. Just blinks forlornly saying the connection was lost and never thinks to retry.

  4. Miffo

    Congratulations on he most misleading headline of the year.

    So far. There's always stiff competition on this site. :-)

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    With Vodafone anyone can get one - you just have to pay. With the other networks (and my experience is with Three) - they constantly tell you you SHOULD have decent coverage at your house (when you clearly do not) and will not give or sell you one of the boxes. Perhaps if you are on a very juicy contract they would be for me spending £20 or less a month - faghetaboutit - so now on Vodafone and everyone gets 5 bars.

    1. AceRimmer


      I just got a home signal box from Three, it took only 3 phone calls in the end, 1 to technical support and then 2 calls with the 2nd line network support.

      Currently got two £35pm phone contracts with Three and a mifi dongle which probably helps!

      I am about to cancel one of the contracts anyway as its passed it's minimum term and no longer needed but decided to wait until after the home signal has been delivered and proved its worth before doing so.

  6. John Sager

    I was invited onto Voda's trial some years ago, which was a real boon as we live in a hole. We've had a few ups & downs - when our previous ISP changed upstream provider, it all went dead and I had real problems persuading Voda that it was a missing entry in their network whitelist. It seems to go off from time to time, but less often these days. My wife also notices that it sometimes seems to die after a while in longer conversations - dunno if that's a femto issue or an issue with our broadband. The box we have is the original Sagem one. The new one looks to be a tad more convenient to connect but less easy to place for good coverage IMHO.

    We only use it for voice & text - the home wifi takes care of Internet from our phones. Why would you want to run Internet over the tunnel, using up a monthly data allowance, when it's available directly on broadband?

  7. Corin

    Three Homesignal user here

    The arguments about paying double for the power and data don't really stack up in my eyes. The Three home signal in my house uses around 2-3 watts, roughly equivalent in electricity costs to one pint per year.

    It uses around 2MB of data per day when idle, calls use around 0.75MB per minute (so around the same as a SIP call, give or take). SMS I can't really measure, but it'll be trivial.

    I'll write off any usage due to data, but suffice it to say that any browsing I do on my phone while at home will backhaul via the ADSL, either directly via the wifi or via 3G to the homesignal and via the VPN back to Three.

    So in terms of financial and bandwidth costs, it's trivial. In exchange, I get full 3G signal around the house, rather than a flickering 0-1 bar signal. The device was sent to me for no charge.. Colour me happy! Now if only my Three phone worked in other indoor areas...

    1. Danny 14

      Re: Three Homesignal user here

      surely with data you will be on wifi though so that wont be counted twice.

  8. Sir Adam-All


    Ive got a Vod Sure Signal.

    Its crap.

    Takes about 2 days if powered cycled to sync up and be ready, and then whilst sat there my phone will switch between the sure signal and teh mobile network going from full signal to hardly any signal.


  9. The Vociferous Time Waster


    I live in rural Yorkshire and have an Orange phone with UMA capability. Basically it uses your wifi to achieve the same result with no need for a stupid little box that costs £100.

    1. Alan F

      Re: UMA

      Uma would have been great but the handset manufacturers never supported it very well. Only Blackberries supported it on more than one or two handsets. That's what makes Femto cells better you can use any handset with it.

  10. SteveK

    Vodafone kept trying to tell me I needed to buy one when I called to complain about nonexistent data connectivity both at home (where I had wifi anyway) and out and about in town. They didn't quite see how a Sure Signal would be of no use or that it might constitute a trip hazard if I had to trail Ethernet cable behind me whenever I was out.

    Now with Orange (Or the rather bland EE) where I actually do get a 3G signal most of the time, as well as the ability to use SignalBoost to basically do what a femtocell does in-phone over wifi for free.

  11. Stewart Atkins

    I also purchased a Vodafone SureSignal box a couple of years back, when I was in the middle of nowhere in the Scottish Highlands, it worked extremely well there once it was set up (as the article said the old boxes took a while to get started the first time, but they were a lot cheaper than the current generation of boxes at around £45). I only really had 2 complaints, one being that the box only did 3g, so when the family came to visit their old 2g mobiles wouldn't work, the other is that in the middle of edinburgh votadfone were sending me a text message once a week saying i needed to update the address on file for my box, even though it was correct. Given that i didn't reeeally need the box in the middle of edinburgh it ended up getting shoved in a drawer where it still resides today.

    Still, for the year or so I was using it, i felt it well worth the £45 I paid so i could make and receive calls and texts at home.

  12. teapot9999

    O2 boostbox doesn't work

    We had 2 O2 boostboxs supplied for 2 home workers, neither ever worked and O2's technical people gave up trying and just said that the users needed to buy a new router but would not guarantee it would work after that

    1. John Sager

      Re: O2 boostbox doesn't work

      That's the weak point. The support peope aren't really support at all. I had this exact problem. The young lady I spoke to at Voda was very pleasant but very soon ran into the limits of her competence & understanding. It was almost a case of "sorry, can't help. goodbye" until I said " if you can't help, who in your organisation will?". It got escalated to a manager, but even he wasn't happy in owning the problem, even though I could tell him exactly where the problem lay in his network. The support people ought to know much more about the detail of how the service actually works and be able to run connectivity checks.

  13. Irongut

    20th Century connectivity

    "even our Highland bureau can experience 20th Century connectivity - even if the majority of Scots can't"

    The majority of Scots live in Glasgow, Edinburgh & Aberedeen and we can get 3G just fine thanks. The majority of Scotland is outside these places but that's where the people are.

    1. Gav

      Re: 20th Century connectivity

      I was also mystified by this comment. The majority of Scots have perfectly fine 3G connectivity.

      Yes, in some rural areas it's patchy or non-existent, but what makes them rural is that the majority of Scots don't live there.

    2. Gavin McMenemy

      Re: 20th Century connectivity

      Yeah, I was mystified by this comment too.

    3. Joel 1

      Re: 20th Century connectivity

      Silly me, I thought this was about *mobile* connectivity!

      I don't give a toss about where the majority of people live - I live in one place but travel all around, and I suspect that they do to. I want to have decent coverage when I am out and about, and it might me on motorways or train lines passing through areas where no-one lives, but lots of people pass through.

      Or it might be on a walk in the country around a reservoir (again, minimal resident population, but on New Years Day, the world and their dog seemed to be there as well).

      The biggest disservice Ofcom ever did was to block roaming deals in the UK. If I go to France, my phone picks up whatever network seems to be the strongest. My wife was therefore commenting about how good the 3G coverage was in rural France compared to the pitiful state in the UK nigh on 13 years after the auction. She was unaware that her phone had been switching between networks to give the best coverage.

      So, I'm not worried about connecting when I am round at my mate's house, as I will use his wifi. Similarly, in cities you will quite likely find a wifi hotspot. But when out and about, I would quite like to be able to google something, or download the podcast on the tourist information board, or follow the virtual museum exhibits.

      Megaphone, 'cos there's no coverage out here....

    4. Intractable Potsherd

      Re: 20th Century connectivity

      I've just moved to a sizeable city between Edinburgh and Aberdeen, and I'm absolutely astounded at how bad comms are here. I'm two miles outside the city centre, and there is no cable. The mobile signal on EE and Tesco varies between 0 and 2 bars, and I haven't seen a 3G signal at all in the house. Quite a surprise after years of being a Blueyonder/VM cable customer for well over a decade in two smallish towns, with 5bar mobile signals in both.

      Scotland does seem to be behind the curve when it comes to comms - would independence change that?

  14. Mark McNeill

    Reading the article was a relief

    I was afraid from the headline that, erm, the Scottish Highlands would be getting blanket 3G coverage. One of the great selfish pleasures of my trips to the remoter parts of the Highlands is that people know there's no way of getting in touch with me.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    signal box on EE

    Femtocells have been available on the EE brands (EE, T-Mob and Orange) for a month or so. It appears to be the same Siemens Network box that Three use. Mine has been quick to set up and much more reliable than the Vodafone Sure Signal I used to have.

    More here:

    1. Alan F

      Re: signal box on EE

      The signal box from three looks like a ubiquisys Fap not Siemens

      1. civboy

        Re: signal box on EE

        'The signal box from three looks like a ubiquisys Fap not Siemens'

        Ubiquisys make the FAP, but it is being sold via Nokia Siemens and NEC (who are their systems Integrators and who typically already have a foot hold in the operators network).

        It is essentially the same box as is used for SFR, Three and EE (Orange and T-Mobile). They just use different core networks and possibly slightly different software loads.

      2. civboy
        Thumb Up

        Re: signal box on EE

        Correct. The box is developed by Ubiquisys. However it is sold to operators through their systems integrators, NEC and Nokia Siemens, who already have a foothold in the operators core networks.

        The same basic 'G3' box is used for SFR, Three and EE (T-Mobile and Orange). They just connect to their respective core networks, and potentially have different software loads on them.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    un-sure signal

    spent ages trying to set up a suresignal for my elderly mum and had to conceed I could not make it work.

    Could not establish networking (thought that would have been the easy bit) with voda asking me to set up static routes, adjust firewall settings etc. No normal customer would even have understood what they were asking.

    also note, dont try to set up suresignal at any adreess other than your account address. This seems to further complicate their service.

    I see no real reason why this should not be as easy as simply plugging in a wifi router but vodaphone make this a real mission with broken links on their website. unachievable configuration steps without calling for help and a shiny white box that (according to ther support) sometimes disagrees with your ISP...

    The whole service is certainly not designed to be consumer friendly.

  17. MrXavia

    Complain bitterly?

    Three gave me one when I called to take out a contract, no need to complain, no need to argue, I just told them my house was not in coverage, and they shipped one that arrived just after my new phone did...

    Sometimes it pays to talk nicely to customer services, they are just doing a job...

  18. b166er

    I'd like to see these frequency antennas built in to common-or-garden routers by default.

    Cellular network augmentation via femtocell in normal operation and 3(+)G failover for broadband outages.

  19. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

    Vodafone SureSignal Portal

    Someone at Vodafone told me that the SureSignal registration portal will only accept mobile numbers which are on consumer contracts. If you have any kind of business contract, the SureSignal portal will fail to recognise you, and hence require you to phone up customer disservice.

    1. justnmbr

      Re: Vodafone SureSignal Portal

      Not true, I am a business contract Vodafone customer and there were no such problems

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Also on EE, signal box has been fantastic & doesn't require any numbers to be registered, just roam into range and it works perfectly.

    1. Polyphonic

      Re: EE

      I'm on an EE box and it is excellent. Never had any coverage here and now 5 bars all over the house and some distance into the garden. It has been a revelation. We can text our family, and phone them on our mobiles at home rather than going up the to the top of the hill!

  21. Ian Michael Gumby

    Silly question...

    In the US, if you live in a rural area where you have spotty cell coverage, you also live too far out from town where you have broadband or DSL. Meaning your television and internet come via satellite.

    What are your options then?

    Do you set up a point to point microwave tower and then set up some cells to work around the farm?

    1. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

      Re: Silly question...

      Follow the "Claire's house" link in the article...

  22. bed

    Another slant on the GSM signal black hole problem may be addressed by O2’s Tu Go voip app coming “real soon now” (and has been for some time).

    Whether this is different from SIP is not clear. This may be attractive (or not) for mobile workers with one phone number following them around, dubbed “presence” in voip jargon. However, if it is not SIP and cannot be used on the mobile phone but it requires a handset on the laptop, then I think domestic users may prefer the black hole (or a femto cell).

  23. paulkerdot

    EE Femto

    have an EE femtocell. I got one when they were first released on the 10th of December 2012. I have heard that they are not available at present because the second batch delivered was faulty. The rumour is that the next batch is due very soon. Once stocks are up to speed they will be available to everyone.

    It is the same femto as the "3" version and is very good. Highly recommended. At present you dont need to register numbers so anyone with an EE/Orange or T-Mobile 3G phone can use it. I think that is to change though. With regard to the interference I am sure if you used a long ethernet cable and put some space between the boxes they would all be fine. Seems strange that EE wouldnt let you guys ave one.

    House Rules

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