Vodafone 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.

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 four 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.

I imagine Vodafone Australia are also working on bringing Sure Signal to market – especially with their current coverage woes. Stayed for more on that.

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.