Dear Lifehacker, I live 6 kilometres from the Melbourne CBD, and my neighbours and I have very poor coverage. I’ve been through the whole Telstra blackspot report, and Telstra has come back and suggested that I get one of its smart antennas, which improve mobile reception within the home.
What Telstra didn’t mention is that the device is $720 outright or an additional $30/month over the next two years. There are at least 20 people in our little ‘dip’ of reception that have this problem, so I wonder whether everyone has to get one of these things. I find it incredible that it is that costly. How does this compare to the femtocell option which Optus offers? Is it worth investing in either? Thanks, Disconnected
Black spots are a reality for any mobile service. No matter what percentage coverage any carrier claims to have, it isn’t a guarantee that the network will work in your street, or your house. That’s why carriers sell booster devices to improve in-home reception, but their value in many cases is frankly questionable.
While they aim to solve the same problem, Telstra’s Smart Antenna and Optus’s Home Zone Femtocell work in quite different ways. The Telstra solution relies on taking available mobile signal in one part of your home and retransmitting it. The Optus solution redirects your mobile calls to use your home broadband network, so you’re not reliant on mobile signal within your home at all.
There are pros and cons to both approaches. The Telstra solution is theoretically easier to set up, as it doesn’t need to be wired into your existing router. However, it’s only useful if there is, as Telstra’s own site puts it, “at least one spot within your office or home where you can make calls”. If you have zero reception indoors, it’s no use at all. If the best-case scenario is a call that sounds like it is being made underwater in a bathtub, that’s all you’ll get everywhere else in the house as well. If your house is of an age where mobile signal can’t get into individual rooms, the smart antenna won’t necessarily help. And if the number of people using the Telstra network in your area increases, the quality of calls will eventually fall for everyone no matter what booster you use.
The Optus Home Zone femtocell solution relies on the quality of your home broadband connection, which is used to receive calls that are then sent to your mobile via Wi-Fi. That means it can work even if there’s no mobile signal indoors, but if your home broadband isn’t a decent speed, your calls won’t be very good. Even if you do have reasonable broadband, you may experience problems. When I tested the Optus femtocell, I found the quality of calls noticeably worse than if I simply used my mobile (and I don’t have great Optus reception at home). If you can’t get good Wi-Fi signal throughout your home, the femtocell won’t help either.
I certainly don’t want to claim my experience is universal; I know other people have achieved good results with the same product. You can also optionally pay $5 a month to enable free calls to landlines while you’re connected to the Home Zone, which might be good value in some circumstances. But there’s an element of uncertainty every time you use one of these solutions.
Optus wins on cost; its monthly charge ranges from $10 to $15 a month, depending on the mobile plan you have. However, in both cases, there’s something iffy about paying extra money to a company whose service doesn’t work properly to make it half-usable.
If you’re a home owner, then investing in some kind of booster can make sense. But if you’re renting, it’s a much more questionable prospect. if you do sign up, I’d make it very clear that you’ll be returning the unit and expecting a refund on your contract if it doesn’t deliver results.
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