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.
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.
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.