My Optus Femtocell Gives Me More Bars But Less Quality

I've been testing Optus' femtocell technology since the official launch last week, and the results have been odd and a little disappointing. The femtocell does succeed in giving me more bars on my phone, but despite that apparently improved reception, the quality of voice calls actually degrades fairly dramatically when I use it.

I have Optus as the main carrier on my BlackBerry, so I've long been aware that the reception quality at my home is, to put it charitably, poor. There's usually only one bar for reception (perhaps two if I'm lucky), and the connection itself is invariably GPRS rather than 3G. If I want to make calls, I use the landline or Skype, and when I want to do data-oriented stuff, I hook up via Wi-Fi to my home broadband (which is from Internode, but ultimately is a Telstra service).

As such, I'm a pretty good femtocell test candidate. The femtocell lets you use your home Internet connection for receiving and making calls rather than a perhaps-iffy mobile signal, but still maintains your number (so people can ring and text you, which isn't possible if you simply hook your phone onto your home Wi-Fi). Because I'm combining a prepay phone service with a non-Optus ADSL connection, I can't take advantage of the Optus offer of unlimited Australian calls via a femtocell connection in return for $5 a month. However, I can see if it makes my reception and call quality better.

Getting started

Setting up is easy, and despite the manual ominously warning that initial authorisation of your device after registering it online can take up to 90 minutes, everything is functional within 20 minutes or so. Adding extra numbers to the web interface is also no drama.

When you make a call that is routed via the femtocell rather than the existing 3G network, you hear a distinctive "three beeps" tone. That's particularly important if you're assuming that you'll be getting free calls under the unlimited offer. It's also worth listening out for, because I did find that on one or two occasions the femtocell went out of service temporarily and I was back on the standard 3G network.

Needing to make sure you know it's operational might help explain why the femtocell itself has such annoyingly bright lighting -- much more dominant than either my existing router or my phone handset. The photo below gives you an idea of just how much brighter it is. The small green lights near the top are the router; the ones in the middle are my handset; the UFO-style effect at the bottom is the femtocell.

Performance problems

I found the lighting annoying, but I would absolutely put up with it if the femtocell had improved my phone experience. The simple truth was that it didn't. My phone displayed more bars, and when I ran speed tests the results were massively better than if I just used a 3G connection. (In one typical example, download speeds via just my handset were 44Kbps, which rose to 3600Kbps once the femtocell was switched on.)

The problem was that these extra speeds didn't translate to a better call quality. On the contrary, calls sounded much worse when I made them through the femtocell. There were frequent dropouts when I was listening, and people I called complained that I sounded really distant. When that happened the second time, I switched off the femtocell and called back. I only had one bar on my phone, but the call quality was notably improved.

This seemed to me an odd result, so I did a bunch more testing. I used different handsets, tried at different times of day, and made sure nothing else was using the connection. (My line speed was well above the minimum Optus recommends.) No matter what I did, the calls sounded worse when the femtocell was switched on. So (and this won't shock anyone) I switched it off.

What this means

I wouldn't want to suggest this means no-one should get a femtocell. I'm a single user in a specific location, and while my mobile reception at home isn't great, I can at least get a signal. If I lived somewhere where the signal dropped out completely, I'd doubtless welcome any opportunity for my phone to actually work.

What it does suggest to me is that investing in a long-term deal tied to using a femtocell is something you'd want to think about very carefully. If you sign up for a 24-month contract, you save money on the device, but that's a bit pointless if the device itself turns out to be not much use. It certainly wouldn't be in my house, but I'd welcome comments from other new and prospective users in the comments.


Comments

    I live in a complete blackspot (one bar if you rest your phone on the windowsill), we have had a femtocell for 2 months now, and its EXCELLENT!

    We have not had any issues with call quality, they are definitely very good quality. I suspect this is due to our particularly fast connection, we are on the new telstra cable (we routinely get 30+mb/s).

    I would highly recommend it if you live in a blackspot like i do. I am now able to use my phone anywhere in my house.

    just a note you need some mobile recption to activate the device (this meant i needed to take the femtocell and long network cable to activate it).

      If you are in a blackspot i would highly recomend a new network providor - Femtocell wont do you much good when the power is out!

        If you live in a blackspot I wouldn't be relying on a mobile for emergency calls. That said a UPS to power that small amount of gear would probably be available for under $300 or thereabouts.

        We live in a valley, you cant get signal here with any provider (not even telstra). As there are only 4 houses in the street none of the networks have bothered to put a cell in.

      Hi George,
      I didn't think you could add a femtocell to a Telstra network. We have Telstra cable like you. Where did you get your femtocell from?

    I use a FRITZ!Box with the FRITZ!App Fone on my android phone, which allows me to call over a landline or VoIP using the wireless connection from my phone.

    With the cheaper of the FRITZ!Boxes available for ~$225, no issues with emergency calls, and no monthly costs, it seems that for people with an iPhone or Android phone it might just be a better option.

    And I haven't had any issues with call quality with it either.

    isnt having a femto cell an admission of defeat by Optus? I am with telstra so naturally i dont have reception issues, but if i was with Optus i would rather a better network then having to pay for another device, that seems to not work anyway!

    I'm just pondering whether you're getting a bunch of attenuation from it being in the corner of that metal shelving unit? Is the audio performance just as poor if you balance the femtocell atop your lonely bottle of champagne?

      The femtocell connects directly via cable to the router, so shouldn't be any basis for interference on that score. (Router is on the top of the shelf just in case that's a factor, but hasn't ever been a drama with Skype.)

        So I'm not clear on how the mobile phone communicates with the femtocell. Is it via WiFi through the router, or via the mobile microwave band directly with the femtocell?

        The reason I ask is 'cos that shelf looks like the attenuation mesh barrier at the front of a microwave oven.

          TBH, I'm not entirely clear on the mechanics either. In practical terms however, there's absolutely nowhere else the femtocell could go (given location of existing phone and power points) without me buying new furniture (which I don't want to do). Underscores the point again that its usefulness as a practical solution depends a lot on individual circumstances.

            Femto cells have their own radio that they use to receive and transmit. The signal is probably getting partially degraded by the steel frame and probable close proximity to the WIFI router, but likely a performance issue on the upstream or local errors problem. Probably a dodgee ethernet cable between modem/router and femto unit.

            I understand your point about not wanting to replace your furniture, but in terms of even just testing you appear to have placed it in the worst possible location. If you swapped the position of your router and the Femto, I suspect the Femto would work better and your WiFi would suffer.

            If you are going to test something and write a published article, you need to test it properly. Your placement of the unit is shocking. It would be the equivalant of test driving a car only by driving on gravel roads.

    tru dat wsDK_II

    I reckon optus should have given DISCOUNT for having femto cells, not CHARGING the customers.

    not $5 discount or something, but like $1.

    Isn't it true that the more femtocells there are in the country, the better it will be for Optus coverage?

      @kura, It would be very cool to have a crowd sourced mobile network but that isn't how I think this works. Only the subscriber and other users authorised by the sub can connect. Don't forget it uses your existing data connection so the subscriber is paying for that as well.

      Agree though that it is amazing that ppl will pay for a device that just gets them the service levels that others already have.

    I've had an Optus "Home Zone" cell since last Monday and Optus still can not get it running for me.
    I have it connected directly to an Optus Cable modem and run the rest of my home network thru it, so I know it's connected to the net but even though Optus have escalated the issue to senior techs, no go.
    Also don't bet on their 48 hour guarantee to get back to you if the initial help desk can not solve an issue.

    It's stupid getting on the femtocell bandwagon - Customers pay Telco's for a mobile service that works, part of the money you pay goes to paying for cell towers i.e coverage. So Optus is taking your money and pocketing it then making you pay AGAIN for something you already paid for - a working mobile service! Talk about sucked in!

      +1

      If you're not getting what you're paying for, take your business elsewhere.

    As much as I hate the idea of one of these, it is looking like the perfect solution for my parents. Apartment block in valley with major blackspot.

    Reception is in one room if you are lucky.

    Questions I have is when a smartphone is connected to this, are you using your 3G data allowence when you browse the web as you are not on WiFi, or does it know that you are on the Femto and not charge you for that data as it is your home broadband?

    I remember Patrick Norton (Teckzilla) having a rant about a similar product in the US. The basics went like this.

    Why does the mobile company expect me to pay for an additional product just to get what I am paying for in the first place.

    Makes you wonder.

      AFAIK Optus have never made claims regarding indoor coverage. Their maps only reflect outdoor (on-street) coverage - anything else is a bonus.

      So perhaps one should be paying Optus more for coverage that wasn't promised…

    Check my analysis: https://plus.google.com/u/0/106641188254702687554/posts/4B4ZLYGwEfJ. Would like to receive comments there.

    you guys don't know how to deal with Optus right...

    I'm on the 49 cap with an iPhone 4...

    since September, i have paid for a whole lot of 4 months worth of bills.

    also, i am only paying $24.50 a month for the $49 cap. as when optus tried calling my phone, they only got through 50% of the time, i told them, due to that, im only paying half the bill...

    As I said before, class action against Voda when they had there problems but there is never any talk of the same with Optus.

    They seem to be just as bad as Voda but keep charging the same for calls/plans and no sign of improvement.

    i thought my call rates were more expensive than landline because I am paying for the network infrustructure.

    Something wrong with this picture!

    Lawyers reading? I'll sign up for a class action

    Presuming these photos are from the authors actuall setup I would suggest you try some different placements. Firstly take it out of the metal shelving system.

    Would also be interested in the support response and any resolution you've had from Optus with regards to the problems you've been experiencing.

    I have been trying to get the homezone working for three weeks, i've been told that because iam in a 900mhz area i needed a location unlock for my device after a week later i'm told that the device needs 2100mhz freq to work. WTF its not a signal booster it uses your internet connection, i've been completely fucked around. so i orgainsed to cancel the service. very pissed off!

    Does it improve internet access also from 3G?

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