Dodgy cellphone signal? Plug in your own mast!

Vodafone has launched a device which boosts reception for cellphones in the homes of British customers. It’s the first time the device, known as a femtocell, has been launched to consumers in Europe.

The device (pictured, via works by routing cellphone signals through a home broadband connection. The femtocell, which simply plugs into the mains power and a spare ethernet connection on a router, effectively acts as a miniature base station which broadcasts mobile signals.

It works with any 3G phone and is designed to solve the problem of people having inconsistent signal throughout their homes and often having to move from room to room to make and receive calls. That’s becoming more of an issue now that many people use their cellphone as their primary communications device, with landlines often used mainly for internet services. (I can identify with this: in one home, while sitting in my favorite seat, my phone only received calls when I remembered to put it in my right-hand trouser pocket rather than the left…)

The device, which Vodafone is marketing under the name Access Gateway, costs £160 (US$264) to buy outright, or £5 a month to rent. For Vodafone customers, it’s included free with a £15 monthly tariff. Users can route calls for up to four different phones through the device, though they have to register these before they will work; this prevents neighbors taking advantage of your bandwidth.

The system also works well for network carriers such as Vodafone because the data is transferred through the broadband connection rather than its own networks. That’s a useful way of reducing strain, particularly as data-hungry smartphones are placing ever-heavier demands on networks.

There are some potential drawbacks. Vodafone says its tests show the device doesn’t have a noticeable detrimental effect on the internet connection of the broadband line its hooked up to. However, there’s no specific technology to stop this happening, so it’s always a possibility.

It may also be a tough sell as Vodafone is effectively asking customers to pay extra to make up for the fact that it hasn’t got enough masts in place to give everyone a solid signal throughout their home.