Hard Cell

I live in a lovely spot. A beauty spot, a rural spot, a remote spot: there’s no shortage of adjectives. One of my least favourites is ‘not’ or, if you prefer, ‘black’. No mobile data, you see. In fact, no mobile anything. While the world got all aspirational about 4G, my dreams were exactly half as ambitious.

Mind you, there are some benefits to ‘not’ having that mobile signal. Sometimes it’s nice to be out of touch. Also, with two teenagers devoted to social media, it’s good to know that their sneaking a smartphone upstairs for some crafty Facebook time will do them no good.

But mostly it’s a pain in the arse that I’ve had to live with, until 2 weeks ago. Then, the availability of femtocells and the arrival of a crew of phone-hungry builders prompted me to do something about it. I purchased a Vodafone Sure Signal box and within a couple of hours or so of delivery had a strong-looking 3G signal for me and the builders to enjoy. Perfect?

Well, no. Firstly. I’m affronted by the fact that Voda has insisted on charging me £50 just so that I can block a hole in their network. As a contract customer, and a business one at that, this is surely a big call revenue opportunity for them? I’ll be calling from my mobile in preference to my home phone because that’s where my address book lives, and because the company will pick up the bill. And there must be a cost benefit to them as well, because the call hops onto my broadband connection so I’m already picking up the charge for the first miles and network backhaul!

Needless to say it’s also tethered to the Voda network, so it’s no benefit to my missus (Orange) nor the rugrats (O2). I expect Voda is hoping they’ll jump ship. Ofcom – over to you. And, in the meantime, if anyone knows how to hack a Sure Signal (it’s the Alcatel Lucent 9361 Home Cell) well, you know how to reach me.

My second gripe is the hilarious sign-up process. First I had to create a ‘My Vodafone’ account. Why is that? They already bill me, so they know or can infer pretty much everything they’ll ever need to know about me. As part of that largely redundant on-boarding process – and this is genius of a kind – they had to text me a security code to enter in a web form. Now, did I mention that I live in a mobile not spot?

Needless to say that half way through this process I got booted off the web site and had to start over. So, after a 5km round trip in search of a signal and hour of fiddling, only then was I ready to actually register and configure the box. This required me to precisely locate the box for them (including the floor of the building it’s in) and list the phone number of any users. The unit then went through the process of homing on a server and downloading a config, which took about half an hour. So zero touch and seamless it was not.

How’s it working? Well, Windsor the builder says it’s the best signal he’s ever had. He says that about my missus’ tea too, so I’m not relying on his objectivity. Call quality seems good, even with some other stuff concurrent on the broadband link. Data performance is pants though. Turned off the wifi and ran a speed test on the 3G connection, just for kicks: after stuttering along at less than 0.1mbps, the test consistently timed out. Compare that with an average of 3.8mbps download over wifi on the same broadband pipe. Email and Twitter both burrow through. Browsing is a pointlessly slow experience. You’d be nuts to use your 3G plan for data at home of course, but that’s not really the point is it? And I’m sure Voda wishes you would. Oh yes, they do.

My verdict? It works for voice calls and basic messaging. If you need it, you’re likely going to be prepared to pay for it. But I think that as a customer experience it’s right up there with getting your verucas treated. Vodafone, I would not recommend this to a friend. I’m sure you were about to ask.