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Page last updated at 18:46 GMT, Friday, 11 December 2009

Create a personal wi-fi hotspot and stay connected

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Dan Simmons tests the mi-fi device against a 3G dongle

People are more connected than ever before, but gaps in connectivity can still make it difficult to be connected at all times.

Weak mobile phone signals, for instance at home, and gaps in wi-fi coverage create dead spots in communication.

New technologies are now bringing the solution to people who need to be contactable around the clock.

Richard Hughes, a golf equipment salesman, found that not getting coverage on his handset at home was costing him between £500 and £2,000 a month.

"One of my good customers would try to get hold of me to do a deal, and they couldn't, and I'd get a message on the answer phone," he explained.

"I might not get the message for half an hour and by the time I phoned them back I've missed the opportunity as they've gone to another supplier," he added.

Boost signal

Mr Hughes's home in West Sussex is in a weak signal area which affects the coverage on his Vodafone mobile phone.

Richard Hughes
A femtocell box has helped Richard Hughes get a signal at his home

After he threatened to take his business elsewhere, Vodafone offered him a box to help boost the signal at his home. He said it has made a big difference.

"I didn't get a 'call failed' message or sound like I was talking from inside a swimming pool. It was just clear coverage which makes a big difference."

He was able to boost the signal quality on his handset by connecting the 3G femtocell box to his home broadband connection.

The box then creates a local mobile phone signal that allows connection with a 3G mobile phone.

'Simultaneous' use

Lee McDougall from Vodafone said users with a recommended minimum broadband speed of 1mbps can also benefit from simultaneous phone calls.

"You can register up to 32 different numbers or devices and it can handle four simultaneous phone calls. Or perhaps two phone calls, an internet session, and something else," he said.

Vodafone is the first mobile operator in Europe to offer the femtocell box which delivers speech, text or data.

The company has reported higher mobile data use from the trial users, but the box currently only works with Vodafone SIM cards. Although, the femtocell technology is expected to be rolled out to other networks.

Sponsored cost

Femtocells box
The femtocell box plugs into a user's broadband connection

Guy Kewney, technology journalist, said the femtocell tech is currently viewed by operators as a way of preventing dissatisfied customers from switching.

"In that circumstance, I can't help feeling that they ought to see it as a promotional cost and subsidise it a lot more than they seem to be prepared to do," he said, "If Vodafone want me to use their solution then I think it's up to them to sponsor that."

He also pointed out that most households use more than one operator, so using a box just for one would probably result in family disputes.

Vodafone is currently giving away the femtocell devices to some customers, but the typical fee will see users pay £120 over several months.

This compares favourably to the tariffs in France, the United States or Japan where the device is often tied into more costly contracts.

Health benefit

One benefit of the femtocell technology is it reduces the need for more phone masts to cover gaps in 3G coverage.

This would help reduce some people's health concerns with regards to masts.

Lee McDougall
Lee McDougall from Vodafone said the box can handle simultaneous use

Vodafone said typically a femtocell emits weaker signals than the router into which it is plugged.

Mr Kewney said he would rather have a small signal created in his home rather than a stronger signal from a mast.

"Do you want a very powerful mast outside your house or a tiny signal that's barely detectable indoors?" he asked.

Personal wi-fi

In the same way that a femtocell helps people indoors, there is now help at hand for those who find themselves in between wi-fi hotspots while on the move.

Operator 3 has come up with a device called mi-fi which creates a personal wi-fi signal wherever the user goes.

Once a SIM card is placed inside, the device converts that phone signal into a wi-fi one.

Mr Kewney explained that the mi-fi brings the added advantage of being simple to connect from a computer.

"You may well find it's easier to use wi-fi which is already set up and running than to install a whole new USB dongle and then sort out the drivers."

Unlike the 3G dongle, the mi-fi allows more than one device to share the same connection.



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