Thinking of getting a signal booster? Wait right there..

Thinking of getting a signal booster? Wait right there..

You young kids might call it “bantz” now, but I was having a “discussion” on Twitter with a few people about the in-building penetration provided by networks operating on 900MHz. The likes of O2 and Vodafone both seem to get through the walls of my home but, using the exact same transmitter location on a different frequency, EE suffers a bit. I know there’s lots of variables at play here, including transmitter power etc, but doing a bit of research before buying a phone is always helpful.

Take the coverage maps for example. I found that my weekend without a signal was the result in the sometimes-fictional network coverage maps. So, if you’re going to buy lots of phones for your business, it’s probably best to start off with a Pay As You Go SIM card in a phone to see if the signal actually reaches inside your office.

If it doesn’t, or it does and the magical 4G / 3G power drops down to GPRS, you could be considering a different network. However, many networks will fix this problem with something like Sure Signal (Vodafone), EE Signal Box, the O2 Boostbox or the Three Home Signal device. All of these solutions are called femtocells and use your broadband connection to reach their network. The box will then output a local GSM signal for you to use.

Thinking of getting a signal booster? Wait right there..

There’s other solutions which you can utilise without any additional kit, with many networks offering apps to let you call over WiFi. Three have their inTouch system, O2 have TU Go, EE have their WiFi calling and some MVNO’s are now doing the same, such as Virgin with their SmartCall app.

It’s important to try and make a distinction, but unfortunately there’s an element of confusion about all this. I’ve spoken to Paul Ockenden from PC Pro, who wrote this rather excellent piece a couple of years back about this very situation. Currently the Ofcom site states quite bluntly..

Don’t be tempted to try and boost your signal with a mobile repeater – because if you do, poor reception could be the least of your problems. The unlicensed use of mobile repeaters is illegal in the UK. People using them can face a fine of up to £5,000 and up to a year in prison.

Who wants a year in jail? Not me. It can make the whole process of boosting your signal a little “tricky”, so remember the following…

1Femtocells are described in this other Ofcom link and are also detailed as being “smart repeaters”. Although they sound similar to the “boosters” or “repeaters” you may have seen online, they are not.

Ofcom attempt to clarify by defining a “femtocell” or “smart repeater” as ..

Small base station transmitters that may be installed by a user and connect to the host mobile operator network via a fixed broadband connection. So-called “Smart Repeaters” are controlled by the mobile network via its transmission spectrum without a fixed physical connection. Some mobile network operators are beginning to offer services using these devices which offer improved in-building coverage and data rates.

Thinking of getting a signal booster? Wait right there..

2 – The “signal boosters” you’ll find online (after a quick Google search) are usually grabbing the local signal from “the air” and then re-broadcasting it. This isn’t allowed and, although they may or may not be broadcasting it at the same power / frequency as a femtocell / smart repeater, they’re illegal because they …

a) Are not supplied by the networks. “Only the mobile network operators are licensed to use equipment that transmits in the cellular frequency bands.”
b) It’s probably not allowed to be used in the UK. “All radio apparatus placed on the market or put into service in the UK must meet the requirements of the Radio Equipment and Telecommunications Equipment Regulations 2000”.
c) Although it’s probably safe, how do you know? The licences given out to UK mobile networks are very strict and have controls on transmitter output power and location. If you’re throwing up a transmitter yourself which you purchased from one of these retailers, how do you really know it’s safe?

If you’ve got something in your home or office that wasn’t supplied by the networks and simply sucks the signal from a local (proper) transmitter and re-broadcasts it, it’s probably not legal. If you’ve got something with a network logo on and it’s plugged into your broadband, that’s legal.

However, to further complicate things, the Nextivity signal booster we reviewed is legal.

It’s OK for Vodafone to plug gaps with big Sure Signal kit and it’s cool for EE to create their own micro network but you can’t “extend” a mobile network without a licence or without using the officially sanctioned kit from a licence holder.

What of those signal boosting stores here in the UK? Well, sadly they’re usually not in the UK – no matter what address (usually a mail drop) or phone number appears on their website. They sometimes say they’re legal in the UK, and they even sell antennas plus boosters that’ll cover 5000 sq metres, but they’re simply not legal. I’m sure there’s a few of these dotted around the UK, and I’m sure that people will continue to purchase them.
Thinking of getting a signal booster? Wait right there..
Legality is one thing, but as we’ve seen before with pirate radio broadcasting, although it’s illegal to turn on a powerful FM transmitter, you can still buy them easily and they’re a whole different kettle of fish to the tiny FM transmitters in your car.