Ask LH: Will A Smart Antenna Or A Femtocell Solve My Lousy Mobile Reception Issues?

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

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Dear 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.

Cheers Lifehacker

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    I've recently got a Telstra Smart Antenna and us have to say its much better than you describe.
    The location that I use it in has one maybe two bar at best And as a result of the Smart Antenna I can make clear calls for a good 20-30m from the base station & I don't have the receiving unit in the best spot in the house.
    The other benefit is the antenna unit has the ability to connect an external antenna to it so you can use a yagi if needed.
    Basically if you can receive any signal on your phone somewhere in your house its worth using the unit.

      I'm unfortunately with Vodafone and they gave me there expander box which plugs in to my router, for no cost just to keep me happy, and it has worked a treat, home signal is full always at home now when before I had zero, Nada,
      big X.......

    Yep, Voda gave me one for free !

    is there 3rd party solution for all this ?
    Im with TPG and just few km off the CBD with pretty much got 1 bar :( at my place

    "3rd party solutions" are illegal in this country (and many other countries too by the way)

    As you are repeating a mobile signal, the box itself has to be licensed to the ACMA (federal government agency on communications) and the mobile provider will give them your address as well. Use the repeater elsewhere and you could potentially receive a massive fine or imprisonment (but a fine is far more likely).

    If your with TPG you can buy the Optus box but will need one other optus service in the house as I understand it.

    I'm with vodafone and got given one for free - it worked well until i got a new phone then it stopped working. I'll have to call them about that one of these days...

    any idea if these do 4g? (Telstra)

      The Telstra Smart Antenna product repeats the NextG signal only (i.e. 3G @850MHz) for any Telstra customer in range, as I understand it. It allows anybody in range of the product to use it, unlike the Optus Home Zone device.

    The technology assessment of the Optus HomeZone is actually incorrect. Sure the Optus Home Zone femtocell solution uses your home broadband connection as this formed the backhaul used to connect the mobile phone to the Optus core network however it does not use WiFi. The Optus HomeZone uses Optus licensed spectrum (2100MHz) and works in the same way as an outdoor tower (not WiFi).

    My personal experieince (and I have had a homezone for over a year) is that the voice quality is very good and my experieince is better than that of the outdoor service.

    I have varying signal from my desk at home where I work from most of the time (3 bars to none and back again within a minute) , most of the time the service worked but often - usually when the call was most critical -I would have to walk to the other end of the house, I would also occasionally receive a missed call voice message without the phone registering a thing. I had previously thought this was due to issues with my old phone however it continued with my new phone. This article reminded me to do something about it as I had no idea such a device existed. Optus did a few tests over the phone from their end and confirmed that there where some known black spots in my neighbourhood, he had reboot the phone and called me back (I think he tried locking me to a tower?). He then mentioned about me being a loyal customer and said I was eligible to receive the device at no cost and to expect it within the next 3 - 5 business days at which point he would contact me back.. Hopefully this resolves my problem!

    There are a few work arounds I've thought of in the past because im in a similar situation.

    1. If you have a smart phone, you can set some rules on your phone (using something like tasker) to do something like the following:
    When connected to "home WIFI", divert all calls to Skype phone number.
    This requires you to have minimum: home broadband (naked or with phone line)/wifi router and a smart phone with skype installed
    2. When arrive at location "home", divert all calls to home number.
    This requires you to have minimum: smart phone with GPS & home land line
    3. If you don't have a smart phone, you can do the above manually each time you get home.

    I've just set up an Optus Home Zone at work due to our office being in a known mobile signal black spot which was confirmed by Optus Mobile Technical support. The unit was provided free of charge and I was told that there would be no extra fees to use it. We now have two Optus users on this femtocell cell booster and we have full 5 bar signals on our phones where we previously had only one or none! O complaints about the service or ease of set up and use. Well done Optus!

    Same here - good things to say about the optus solution! It did work pretty poorly until optus realised the modem was stuffed, after that was replaced the whole thing works a treat!

    Amazes me there is coverage issues with Telstra's network?

    @Tocam every network has their blackspots and no carrier garuntees that their signal will go through every wall in your house.

    I have the Telstra Smart Antenna and it is brilliant. I now get 5 bars in most parts of my home where at best I could only get about 2-3 in the best part of the house. Also after negotiating with Telstra they paid for most of it so only had to part with a couple of hundred dollars.

      Drainster - may I ask how you managed to negotiate with Telstra? After putting up with no service on our Smartphone for nearly a year we have succumbed and decided we will have to get a Smart Antenna. I really resent having to pay $720 in order to obtain a service we are already paying for. We have 1-2 bars in one place at a window in the house and no bars everywhere else.

    Drainster...what did you say!! have just come across the no mobile coverage after moving house in the same town...and telstra just says oh yeah sorry you are in a blackspot give us $700 for the smart antenna....and like jasnick i am very resentful that as a 30 plus years customer with telstra thats all they can come up with!!

    I agree Telstra should not be charging $720 for this device it is really a repeater/booster "renamed" just like the former PM renamed her taxes to make them sound like something else. These things are worth $50-$100 overseas however due to ACMA legislation they are only legal if provided by an authorised provider in OZ hence why they are charging so much. I have a YAGI 13dbi and I use Optus wirless - I have 5 bars now and before had none - Well done OPTUS - they are so much cheaper to use. I can also plug my old Sony phone into it as it has an external aerial port. I don't think all of the new smart phones have these external aerial ports now. I now need to access a Telstra wirless device and it won't get zip as they operate on a lower level signal and it won't receive anything. It is simply nuts - Telstra should be providing them for free - it's not our fault their NBN is taking forever. Maybe we should petition ACMA as they have provided benefits/rebates for the VAST system for TV!

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