Rhodri Marsden: How can I improve my mobile phone's reception?

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The Independent Tech

You don't always have to be the wrong side of a remote hill south east of Llandovery for bad mobile phone reception to be a niggling issue. Even in sprawling urban areas there are back bedrooms, basement flats and windowless offices where otherwise rational humans stand on rickety stools with their arms outstretched in the hope of getting an elusive single bar of reception that will allow them to retrieve voicemail. But whether communication is thwarted by local topography or hulking concrete blocks, help may be at hand in the form of the femtocell.

Femtocell technology has been talked about for the past three years or so, but mobile networks seemed strangely reluctant to introduce it – perhaps because marketing it relies on admitting a network's inadequacies at a time when they're also trying to reassure us that coverage is amazing and we really ought to shell out for mobile broadband dongles. But Vodafone decided to relaunch its femtocell a few weeks back under the name "Sure Signal", and it seems that its time has finally come.

A femtocell is a small 3G phone mast (and before you panic about health risks, it's incredibly low-powered) that sits in your home or office and connects back to the mobile network via your fixed line broadband, giving you perfect reception. You don't miss those important calls, and battery life improves as the phone isn't constantly struggling to establish a network connection. As one Vodafone customer from Northumberland put it: "Finally I feel like I'm not living in a hole anymore." Not a very nice thing to say about Northumberland, but there you go.

What grates slightly is that we're being asked to pay for them. A Sure Signal costs £50 – but it effectively extends Vodafone's network and actually enables us to make and receive calls. Widespread adoption could even save mobile networks having to site, construct and maintain unpopular masts. Femtocells also shift traffic off congested mobile networks and on to your broadband connection – which of course you're also paying for. And with services like Truphone and Skype offering us the opportunity to bypass mobile networks by making cheap direct calls from our mobiles via broadband, you'd have thought that the networks would be falling over themselves to lure us back.

We're so mobile oriented these days that femtocells could be a fantastic boon, bringing the millions of us who experience poor reception on a daily basis back "in range". But if other networks follow Vodafone's suit, could we please have one free with our absurdly long contracts? We would, after all, be doing them a big favour.

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