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Bump Up Your Carrier's Lousy Signal With a Femtocell

By Patrick Nelson
Sep 27, 2012 5:00 AM PT

If you've been experiencing choppy voice quality or dropped calls from your mobile provider at your home or workplace, there are steps you can take to correct the problem.

Bump Up Your Carrier's Lousy Signal With a Femtocell

Cellular phones use radio signals to communicate, and like any other radio, signal propagation issues -- including topography, obstructions, distance to tower and interference -- affect quality.

One method you can use for improving signal is to boost it with an amplifier and external antenna, and I've written about that before.

Another technique is to forget all about attempting to hit the carrier's mast, and squirt the call over your own miniature cell tower and broadband Internet connection. This is called a "Femtocell" connection.

What Is It?

Femtocells are low-power cellular radio base stations that interface with the Internet -- a bit like a Voice over IP application.

The router-sized base station provides a better signal for your existing mobile phone than the neighborhood cell tower. This results in better voice and data quality at your level.

Femtocell advantages include better phone battery life -- the phone doesn't have to work as hard finding a signal -- and a break on call charges, because the calls are sent over your own connection.

Femtocell Prerequisites

Verify that you have a broadband Internet connection and not a dial-up connection. Broadband is an always-on connection. Sprint's devices, for example, need a minimum of 300 kbps up and down for voice, and 3 Mbps down and 1.8 Mbps up for data.

Don't worry too much if your data-side broadband bandwidth isn't sufficient. Just bypass the phone's mobile data and set your phone to its WiFi radio when at home.

How to Get a Femtocell

Kick and scream until your mobile phone service provider gives you one. The devices can cost north of a hundred dollars, or you can "qualify" for a free one. Try to qualify yourself by threatening to close your account with the carrier.

Your phone company knows that spotty service -- particularly at home -- is a deal breaker, and that you're quite capable of ponying up the US$150 or so contract cancellation fee, and buying phone service from someone who will do what they say they will do -- in this case, provide audible phone calls.

The carrier is also painfully aware that its marketing department and engineering department are located on different planets, and just because the marketing department says the carrier provides the best calls known to man, that may not be the case per the engineering department.

Installing Your Femtocell

Unplug any router and modem power supplies.

Disconnect the existing router's Ethernet cable from the modem, and plug a Femtocell-package included Ethernet cable into the modem. Plug the other end of that cable into the Femtocell's WAN port. It may be labeled "Internet."

Power the modem and allow it to stabilize. This can take a few minutes.

Power the Femtocell device with the included power supply. This can also take a few minutes. Look for stabilizing lights on the Femtocell.

Plug any supplied external GPS antenna into the Femtocell. The GPS antenna lets the carrier verify you're in a service area. The GPS antenna may need to be placed closer to a window if the GPS light doesn't illuminate green on the Femtocell. A GPS lock can take up to 30 minutes.

Connect an Ethernet cable from the existing router's WAN port, sometimes labeled "Internet" to a LAN port on the Femtocell. Power the router.

Tip: On Sprint setups, the router is behind the Femtocell, which is behind the modem. The wiring diagram is in that case is modem-to-Femtocell-to-router. Check your Femtocell's quick start guide.

Allow a few hours for the Femtocell to stabilize. The LED lights on the Femtocell should become steady.

Tip: Check your Internet services. In my case, Sprint's Airave product hosed my YouTube on Android delivered via the WiFi router. I used elimination to identify the culprit -- the Femtocell.

In a case like that, try installing the Femtocell behind the router, and the router behind the modem. Then test the Femtocell for calling stability.

In my case, there wasn't a Femtocell stability problem despite Sprint advising against that wiring diagram for stability reasons.

Operating the Femtocell

Follow the instructions that came with the Femtocell to verify your phone is provisioned on the network.

Sprint requests you initially dial "*99" and listen for a message that says you are within Airave coverage. "Airave" is Sprint's Femtocell product name. Call the carrier if the phone isn't provisioned.

Making Calls

Make calls normally. Sprint's Airave product sounds three short beeps to let you know that the call is being handled by the Femtocell radio. Check your quick start guide for carrier-specific notifications.

Tip: Toggle the phone between Air Safe modes on and off to force the phone to look for the Femtocell if, when arriving home, the phone is lethargic locking on the Femtocell radio.

Want to Ask a Tech Question?

Is there a piece of tech you'd like to know how to operate properly? Is there a gadget that's got you confounded? Please send your tech questions to me, and I'll try to answer as many as possible in this column.

And use the Talkback feature below to add your comments!

Patrick Nelson has been a professional writer since 1992. He was editor and publisher of the music industry trade publication Producer Report and has written for a number of technology blogs. Nelson studied design at Hornsey Art School and wrote the cult-classic novel Sprawlism. His introduction to technology was as a nomadic talent scout in the eighties, where regular scrabbling around under hotel room beds was necessary to connect modems with alligator clips to hotel telephone wiring to get a fax out. He tasted down and dirty technology, and never looked back.

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