How I FINALLY found a way to make a phone call

David Phelan explores how to solve the problem of flaky mobile phone signal
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The Independent Tech

Sometimes, technology can let you down. The touchscreen that doesn’t reliably recognise your finger-press, the digital camera with a screen that is hard to use in bright sunlight, the laptop whose battery dies at the crucial moment. And if the issue is that you can’t get a decent phone signal at home, things get very annoying indeed.

It’s more common than you might think. Orange estimates that one in five of us has sketchy mobile phone reception at home. Not everyone has a landline any more, or uses the connection just for broadband, relying on their mobile for all their calls.

But you don’t have to be in a remote area to have a problem. I live in central London with, a Google search reveals, a fair concentration of transmitters nearby. But the girders built into the building I live in do a great job of keeping mobile signals out. It’s like the Bermuda Triangle for phone calls.

It’s worst on the ground floor where I have my office, so I’ve learnt that if the phone rings I must hurtle upstairs before answering to have a chance that the call won’t drop. This is not always convenient, though callers have become used to my breathless greeting. Except when I don’t make it to the safe zone in time. Or, worse, the phone decides it’s out of range of civilisation and doesn’t ring but goes straight to voicemail, so I’ll find out about it later. If these problems are familiar, here’s how to improve things, all borne out of extensive and increasingly bitter experience.

First, choose the right handset. I use an iPhone 4. It’s a gorgeously designed, powerful gadget which combines brilliant functionality with an endlessly delightful interface. When it launched, a furore erupted suggesting the external antenna made it was hard to make calls if you held it wrong. Antennagate was clearly overstated, but some other phones have stronger signal reception. The latest HTC phone, the Sensation, even has pinholes in strategic places on the case to improve antenna reception. In my case, though, no phone had a strong enough antenna to defeat those girders. A Nokia N8 improved the situation marginally but not enough.

Second, make the most of the phone’s features which can help. If the signal failed, I missed both the calls and the voicemails that followed. But broadband can come to the rescue. As my smartphone has a wi-fi connection, I turned to HulloMail, a brilliant free service for iPhone, Android, BlackBerry and more. It delivers your voicemails to you as MP3 files in emails. Since these are sent over wi-fi, it meant I got my voicemails instantly, both on my computer and the HulloMail app. A big step forward, but not quite the full answer.

Third, if you can get a femtocell, do. Don’t be put off by the name which sounds like something to do with intimate hygiene for a women’s prison, it’s just a box which acts like a mini-phone mast but is the size of a broadband router. Don’t worry, the radiation is no more than a wi-fi router. When you make and receive calls the phone signal goes just a matter of feet from you to the femtocell. It is connected to your broadband, and the call is routed over the internet.

The only network with a femtocell right now is Vodafone, and its SureSignal is a work of genius, rightly winning awards for its simplicity and efficacy. I’m on Orange, though, so no help to me. When Orange and T-Mobile merged, customers found a tangible benefit as suddenly two sets of transmitters were usable. But they still couldn’t get inside the Faraday Cage I call home.

By now I was pulling my hair out and trying desperate measures, like installing a landline phone with Bluetooth capabilities. I found that if I gingerly balanced my phone on the edge of a windowsill, I could route the calls to the landline handset. But I lost caller display and anyway, it just felt funny.

This story, you’ll be glad to know, has a happy ending in the form of UMA. This stands for Unlicensed Mobile Access or as I think of it, Ultimately My Answer. It’s a service which is unique to one network but luckily, it’s Orange. It connects my phone to my wi-fi for calls, so poor GSM signal is irrelevant. It only works with a dozen handsets, and none is the iPhone, so when I’m at home I pop the phone’s micro-sim via an adaptor into a BlackBerry Bold to make this trick work.

But it’s a brilliant trick. Now my phone just, you know, rings. No more scampering up stairs, and missing calls is a thing of the past. Call quality is decent, not the HD Voice that Orange also offers but absolutely acceptable, and free of the constant “Oh, you’re breaking up” that peppered previous conversations. You can set UMA to prefer the mobile network over wi-fi or vice versa, or lock it to one or the other.

It’s a free service – calls come out of your monthly bundle in the usual way. The service is not ideal: there should be more compatible handsets, obviously. And I’ve lost a significant amount of my daily exercise, but it has absolutely changed by working life for the better. Although my best excuse for dodging the editor who’s chasing me for copy has just evaporated.