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Ofcom UK Seeks to Expand Range of Indoor Mobile Boosters

Wednesday, May 19th, 2021 (10:51 am) - Score 4,272
Signal tower service concept

A few years ago the UK telecoms regulator, Ofcom, took the decision to licence exempt certain “mobile phone repeaters” for indoor and in-vehicle (low gain) use (here), yet today only the kit from Nextivity (Cel-Fi) is known to officially meet their requirements. But their new proposals could be about to change all that.

Until early 2018 it was still considered to be unlawful (unless approved by a mobile operator like Three UK, O2, Vodafone or EE) for consumers to use repeaters that boost and retransmit UK mobile signals, which can help to improve local mobile coverage but may also cause interference, or other adverse effects, for nearby customers if not correctly managed.

Ofcom’s policy tweak changed that, but it still came attached to some extra conditions, such as a requirement that the repeaters operate only over the frequency bands of any single licensed network operator at a given time. Related devices also had to adjust their power to the minimum necessary to make a reliable connection and incorporate anti-oscillation measures.

However, anybody wanting such kit will have been annoyed to find that only the Nextivity equipment seemed to be approved under their requirements (ISPreview.co.uk confirmed that with Ofcom at the start of this month). The lack of competition means that the cost of such hardware thus tends to be very high and, naturally, there’s only very limited choice of fully approved kit (a lot of other kit is of unknown quality).

mobile_signal_repeater_diagram_uk

The regulator has today recognised this problem by proposing to extend the range of repeaters available for people to buy and install themselves without a licence, which they’ll do by allowing certain types of repeater (‘provider-specific’ and ‘multi-operator’ repeaters) that will operate on the frequencies of more than one mobile operator to be licence-exempt. But they’ll still need to meet Ofcom’s proposed technical requirements.

On top of that they’re also seeking views regarding the value of them “publishing a list of mobile phone repeaters that can be used without a licence” on their website. “We are proposing that a device only be listed on our website if it has been demonstrated (following testing by an accredited test house and in according with a voluntary testing standard produced by Ofcom) that it complies with the technical requirements of our licence exemption regime,” said Ofcom.

We have raised these issues with the regulator before and so it’s good to see them taking action to improve the situation. The consultation itself will be open until 5pm on 28th July 2021 and Ofcom then hopes to publish the conclusion in “late 2021“.

Ofcom’s Mobile Phone Repeaters Consultation
https://www.ofcom.org.uk/../mobile-phone-repeaters-condoc-2021.pdf

Leave a Comment
22 Responses
  1. Phil says:

    Surely the answer to this is Wi-Fi calling, why are mobile repeaters needed? If you can’t get a mobile signal indoors but have broadband/Wi-Fi you can connect and take calls using Wi-Fi calling. If you don’t have broadband and are trying to use the mobile network, you get an external antenna to pick up the mobile signal and present Wi-Fi inside the property. This is why the market doesn’t have much choice of such devices, it is basically because they are pointless. Femtocells and repeaters are old tech.

    1. Mark Jackson says:

      You’ve forgotten about boats (rivers, canals), camper vans and other situations where such things can come in handy. Equally, WiFi calling support remains patchy between operators and devices, so it’s not as dependable. A market does very much exist for these things.

    2. Ken says:

      Good luck trying to use WiFi calling on a £20 Android handset bought from Argos….

    3. 125us says:

      I think the point is to allow wider use of cellular networks as a primary broadband connection. Key to that is improving the penetration of cellular signals into homes and offices.

    4. Phil says:

      @Mark Jackson Indeed Wi-Fi calling is patchy but often that is down to the network operator not supporting it on handsets for whatever reason, my point really is shouldn’t the OFCOM direction be to mandate Wi-Fi calling perhaps? This avoids issues with dodgy equipment, and we all know if there is a market for repeaters and they relax the rules enough to make it a grey area China will flood Ebay with such devices that will be too powerful and just cause havoc with the licensed spectrum.

      @Ken, so a person buys a £20 handset from Argos then spends a load of money on a repeater? Good luck getting a £20 handset from Argos to work at all soon once as 2G is decommissioned, a repeater isn’t going to help when there is zero signal 🙂

      @125us All the solutions regarding 4G/5G type broadband is to take the signal and present a data connection via Wi-Fi, this way it works with more than just devices with a SIM card. Also all those devices then pass their data through the account providing the home broadband, with a repeater they would all connect back to their own various accounts/mobile operators and if any don’t have unlimited data plans you are eating into the allowance.

    5. Kams19 says:

      I have 4G Internet as my postcode is stuck in stone age adsl.
      Three uk WiFi calling doesn’t work very well on it, it seems that if there is 1 or 2 bars of network, then WiFi calling is not used. Only when I put it in flight mode, WiFi calling works. Now if there’s an affordable 4g repeater available I’ll be buying it.

  2. Buggerlugz says:

    This is a cop out by OFCOM, they need to improve legislation to force local councils to give planning permission for new masts. It’s the Tin foil hat wearing “Karen” Brigade complaining and putting the brakes on every time.

    1. Mark Jackson says:

      Expecting 100% (universal) coverage indoors is not economically viable or technically realistic in every circumstance, even with flexible planning rules etc.

    2. 125us says:

      No, it’s not. It’s a recognition that cellular frequencies don’t penetrate some types of building very well. Perhaps consider these things with an open mind rather than automatically assign bad motives to people and you’ll be wrong less often.

  3. John s says:

    Wifi calling does work in a lot of cases, but some scenarios where its not ideal i.e. MVNO operators which don’t support Wifi Calling/PAYG plans, or when you have visitors in your house/business and you don’t want to offer them access to your wifi/network.

    I had looked into this before but didn’t bother as above article mentioned it was only usable with one operator at a time which severely limits the potential use cases. Much more appealing if they allow repeating of all mobile networks simultaneously.

    1. Phil says:

      It’s appealing until your neighbour has a repeater that leaks into your home and ends up causing you issues. We all know getting OFCOM\telecoms companies to sort out someone with dodgy equipment is a tall order. There is a reason spectrum is licensed and not a free for all.

    2. Carl says:

      If you don’t want to offer these people your wifi service, why let them in in the first place if they aren’t trustworthy?

      Unless you’re doing something beyond the law or so secretive that isn’t already secured by the host IE online banking or file host services, personally I don’t see the problem.

    3. Buggerlugz says:

      come on Phil, the reason spectrum is licenced is so the government can make millions from essentially nothing.

    4. 125us says:

      No, that’s not the reason. What would happen if spectrum wasn’t licensed?

      As I said, don’t leap to the presumption that anyone who does anything is doing so to pursue a bad motive.

  4. The Numbertaker says:

    The only licensed kit is stupidly expensive, and locked to a single network. They should re-think this.

  5. Mark says:

    @125us. Are you are aware there areas in the UK where the Nimby vocal minority have successfully stopped all planning applications for masts even to populated areas of several thousands, even outdoor coverage is poor, I’m afraid there are areas where people still oppose because of health and appearance grounds.

    1. Ryan says:

      I know a place like that south of England no 4/3G and 2G is patchy it where my parents live, a number of years back one of tbe mobile provider was planning to install a new mast but didn’t get planning it doesn’t help one the main person on the plan committee is a tin foil hat type.

      Lucky in my area planning committee doesn’t seem to have tin foil hats type got 5G in my area.

  6. Meadmodj says:

    I think this had a place once and while there may be specific instances where they are needed, surely is too late for an end user device which will become yet another piece of kit purchased that simply disappoints, runs in parallel to other technologies they already have and probably will end up thrown down the tip.

    I visited a farm last week in rural Wales. “Superfast” is just about present on their top road but with their long buried cable down to the valley they were barely getting 12 Mbps on each line (2). Not much I could recommend (without spending money) until FTTP is progressed. Previous owners had already provided WIFI in the main house, holiday cottages and across the courtyard.

    Despite Ofcom showing 4G available from all providers, the provider maps showed what I confirmed on the ground that there was no outdoor 4G for THREE, Vodafone & O2. An outdoor 4G signal from EE was so weak it was a useless 2Mbps.

    3G was intermittent away from the house itself. A repeater may have helped, would vary by provider but more likely it wouldn’t have actually helped and they would have purchased more than one to cover the holiday cottages.

    Although their broadband remains slow they are working with it. They had never heard of WIFI Calling and I explained how to set their O2 account and mobile phones to utilise it.

    It cost them nothing and they now have mobile service around the centre of the farm.

  7. GAH says:

    Why not just get customers to use WiFi calling..

    1. GAH says:

      Force wifi calling by using this app: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.widget7.wifi.calling
      Choose either mobile network preferred or wifi calling preferred. Only for android.

  8. Ellastonepaul says:

    Maybe not totally relevant but..
    About six years ago Orange(now deceased!) provided me with a Cisco Femtocell as the signal was non-existent in this area. I have since then changed ISPs a couple of times and am now with part of the BT Group. I have never given it a second thought, certainly not discussed it with any of the ISPs, and it works well, but who is responsible for the service now?
    Am I right in saying that,unlike the Femtocell, Wi-Fi calling does not RECEIVE calls?

  9. telcoman says:

    Wi-FI calling is a great option but i accept some of the comments above that it doesn’t work. The same can be said for repeaters for home install though, they are expensive and in my experience even the simplest deployment model, such as nextivity can cause issues for non techies.

    Where i have real concerns is when these are deployed in buildings for commercial use. The 2018 agreement stated that the primary aim was for home use, even the new proposal states that this is generally for home use yet there are now more and more repeater systems that are supposedly legal being deployed in larger and larger buildings. This creates real issues for the mobile operators and takes an already congested local cell and potentially adds 100’s or even 1000’s of users to it. There have been many installs over the last 18 months during Covid in CBD’s. When all of the end users come back to work they will be mightily disappointed with the service levels, they may have 5 bars…but capacity will be terrible. It takes a long time to add capacity to a macro network. Repeaters in private homes are fine, keep them out of offices large buildings

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