Tech News and Opinions (by Paul Spain)

Review: Vodafone NZ Sure Signal 3G Femtocell

, posted: 25-Jan-2011 09:28

Vodafone<br />Sure Signal - Consumer model
Sure Signal (standard)

After a somewhat problematic process I now have a Vodafone NZ 'Sure Signal' branded Femto cell (micro cell site) gadget up and running. And I'm pleased to say it delivers. If you have problems with 3G mobile coverage at your home or workplace this might be what you need.

Vodafone Sure Signal - Consumer model
Sure Signal Enterprise

I tested the standard unit, which Vodafone are selling for $300+gst ($345) promises to bring a strong 3G signal to places where there was weak or no signal before. Manufactured in France by Sagem, this appears to be same unit offered by Vodafone UK for some time (and was the subject of some controversy when one of its adverts was banned by the ASA).

After placing my online order last Thursday evening I waited for confirmation that the 'Sure Signal' unit had been shipped. The confirmation came in the form of an email from Vodafone NZ which tried to tell me my 'track & trace' number. As it happens the auto-generated email was not able to cope with the unit being shipped to me by Express courier so I was left a little confused. Fortunately the unit arrived soon after the email.

As I drove home I thought about what a simple 'plug & play' installation this would be. With just two connections - one for power and one for an network cable to link to my Vodafone home ADSL internet connection (which is a requirement for using Sure Signal). As it turned out after an initial power up things didn't look to be working, so I reset the unit and waited. The power light kept flashing so I broke the 'geeks code' and started reading the instructions. The instructions informed me to call Vodafone's business help line. I soon got through to a message telling me that Sure Signal support is only available 9am-5pm, Monday - Friday. Disappointing since this is a product marketed for use at home and those are the hours many people work.

So what to do now? Well, I held on the line and ignored the warning that they were closed since I soon heard music which left me thinking I might get through to someone. Sure enough, a few moments later I was connected to a helpful engineer who suggested I wait. He informed me the unit takes between 30-minutes and 2.5 hours to configure itself initially. If I hadn't just read something similar in the instructions I would have been shocked. I was expecting 'plug & play'. I guess such a thing rarely exists with technology. After waiting 30-minutes or so nothing changed so I called Vodafone back and went through a 'factory reset' which fixed the problem.

Following the reset I waited about 1 hour until the Femtocell had configured itself and found I was able to get a full 5 bars when right next to it. I was pleased for about 30 seconds until I walked to the other end of the house and found there was no more signal than there had been before.

Fortunately there was a solution. I moved the Sure Signal Femtocell box downstairs. After a bit of work I found the 3G signal in the two worst parts of the house had shot up 5 bars (out of 5). Sometimes the signal drops back to 4 bars - but overall I am pleased with the results. If I go to our sleep-out I find the signal is no better and drops back to 2G. I presume adding another Femtocell there would solve that problem. Or maybe I could buy the 'Sure Signal Enterprise' at 3 times the price?

The standard Vodafone Sure Signal device is priced at $300+gst ($345) and the Vodafone Sure Signal Enterprise is $899+gst ($1033.85). The value of this equipment can be debated - but it will come down to your own coverage situation and how important getting cellular coverage is to you.

Currently Vodafone UK are selling an identical looking unit to the standard Vodafone NZ Sure Signal box for about NZ$90+vat. It's unclear why there is such a big price difference. I presume considerable testing is required in each market - and New Zealand is certainly a much smaller market than the UK.

Likely due to the topography where I live part of my home has poor coverage for both Telecom's XT Network and Vodafone NZ's existing 3G network. I need reliable cellular coverage - so for me, this is a gadget that is helpful and differentiates Vodafone NZ's offering. That said, Vodafone provide a 14-day money back guarantee. So if I decide it will struggle to deliver $350 in value to me then I can return it.

I think the Vodafone Sure Signal is great - but bear in mind it's not a fully powered cell tower so does have some limitations. There are three that stand out for now:

  1. Coverage extension is limited to max 20 meters (less in the case of my house with a partial concrete floor limiting coverage). For more coverage you'll need the Sure Signal Enterprise which extends up to 40 meters.

  2. Number of callers - limited to four for the standard unit, and eight for the Enterprise.

  3. You must have a Vodafone ADSL connection to link the Sure Signal box to (And a Vodafone router - these are being offered free with Sure Signal box currently).

If you're considering how applicable Sure Signal is for business purposes I suggest you consult your IT provider or IT department for advice. Your network infrastructure and building layout may have an impact on the equation.

Update (15 Feb 2011): Vodafone NZ announced yesterday they are dropping the price of the Sure Signal Standard to $99 until 15 March. And today advise that anyone who purchased at the full price of $349 will get a refund for the difference of $250.

Other related posts:
Review: Nokia Lumia 800

Comment by Duncan McGregor, on 25-Jan-2011 09:57

Since the device hooks into your ADSL connection I assume all data that the device uses to provide 3G is not put against your ADSL data cap.
Is this correct?

Comment by mrgsm021, on 25-Jan-2011 10:44

Pretty cool gadget, luckily I don't need it, have got a Vodafone 2100 site right in front of my house, so full reception all the time at home

Author's note by paulspain, on 25-Jan-2011 10:53

Duncan - Vodafone advise 3G data traversing your Internet connection will not use up your ADSL data cap. Though apparently they're a little behind and right now are still charging for this. I trust they can fix that soon.

Comment by MattEast, on 25-Jan-2011 11:24

Hi Paul. Glad the Sure Signal device has improved coverage at your place, it certainly made a big difference at ours (the lower level of our house is essentially underground).
Regarding your comments on price, the intro price for Sure Signal in the UK was 160GBP which is similar to what it's going out the door for here (although you are correct, the Uk price is now 50GBP), along with that the actual cost of the unit doesn't solely relate to the hardware as there was signifcant network build required to get Sure Signal up and running.
Zero rating for Sure Signal will be launched in February, the small amount of data that it uses in the interim will go against your DSL data cap, if you are impacted by this call the Sure Signal help line (number is in the box) and they will be able to credit you for the data used.

Comment by timmyh, on 26-Jan-2011 06:19

Paul, how do you now access the internet on your smartphone when at home - do you use 3G data over ADSL or does data still go over WiFi/ADSL with voice/SMS etc over 3G/ADSL?

Comment by magnet, on 7-Feb-2011 17:50

Why cant this great unit be used on any broadband connection. We have dreadful vodafone coverage at home base but do not use Vodafone for our ADSL connection.

Comment by magnet, on 7-Feb-2011 18:45

Why cant this great unti be used on any broadband connection. We have dreadful Vodafone coverage at home base but we dont use Vodafone for our ADSL connection

Author's note by paulspain, on 14-Feb-2011 22:29

Note - Vodafone have today announced an 'introductory' special on this unit of $99. It still includes the 14-day right of return for this price.

Comment by anon, on 17-Feb-2011 14:58

Vodafone will have to agree with other ISPs to zero rate this traffic before you will be able to put it on their line - pressure your own ISP to zero rate the traffic and I'm sure Vodafone will open things up

Comment by eugene, on 19-Feb-2011 10:00

The zero-rating comment is a red herring - I'd happily pay my ISP for bandwidth to be able to use my mobile at home. I note that Vodafone Sure Signal in the UK does not mandate a Vodafone broadband connection - any 1+ Mbps connection from any ISP is fine. The restiction in NZ with Sure Signal to work with Vodafone broadband connections only is an artifical, contrived restriction imposed by a monopolistic-mindset that is clearly immoral and would surely be illegal in most civilised countries (maybe even in NZ?)
I have p*ss poor Vodafone reception at home and would buy this unit in a blink of the eye were it not for my ISP being TNZ. I suppose when we have govt-sponsored ultrafast broadband in the future we'll still have to pay Vodafone for the privilege of being able to use their mobiles where they can't be ar*ed to fix up their signals. Our ISP's suck.

Add a comment

Please note: comments that are inappropriate or promotional in nature will be deleted. E-mail addresses are not displayed, but you must enter a valid e-mail address to confirm your comments.

Your name:

Your e-mail:

Your webpage: