Sunday, May 6, 2012

Impressions of Nextivity Cel-Fi femtocell

(OK, so the Cel-Fi maybe isn't technically quite a femtocell.  Shoot me.  Actually, please shoot me, I just came back from a rotten business trip and am jet-lagged to hell.)

Every review I've read on the Cel-Fi sounds the same:
  • Bought it
  • Unpacked it
  • Installed it
  • Used it

Result:  It Works.

Yay.  Great review, guys!

It did work for me too.  Not a big surprise.

And, to be fair, there is little to review on the thing, as it has no controls or adjustments.  It's totally plug and play, which should be an advantage!  Somehow that gets lost in the quest for information.

So.  How WELL it works?  Hm.

Well, installing the "Window Unit" was just a matter of puttering about with my phone set to show the actual signal levels.  You can also use a signal strength widget or something, it doesn't matter.  I was most interested in what the handset was 'seeing'.

I was getting around -81 dB in my bedroom window.  That was only 5 dB better than anywhere else upstairs, but it was a convenient place to put it.

Your experience will likely be similar.  If you have half-assed coverage, precise placement probably isn't essential, so shelve any plans about reaching that big-yet-inaccessible window.  Apartment dwellers or suburbs on the outlying coverage areas who are stuck in the < -100 dB region at best may have more problems, I don't know.

Incidentally, the Window Unit is taller than you think from the pictures.  I had an idea to put it on the window sill, behind the blinds.  Would have been a tight fit.

You can wall mount it if you don't care about aesthetics - it isn't THAT pretty that you want to display it.  It does resemble a large Wifi router, but isn't art.  The Asus RT-N56U is just about art, but the Cel-Fi isn't.

The "Coverage Unit" is equally simple and fast.  It does take time to move around and test it.  If you aren't curious, you will probably find it reads 6 or 7 at the first location you try it, which ain't bad.  It's also pretty large but will blend in to any hi-tech interior theme no worries.  It doesn't look half bad in my living room, where it ended up.  Nobody will see it there anyway, the room is really not used.

I'm not at all sure what the "coverage number" on the unit is meant to indicate.  Obviously, the closer you move the coverage unit to the planned point of use, the stronger the signal at that point of use.  But the "coverage number" doesn't take proximity into any specific location into account.  So I'm not sure.  Maybe it's measuring the overlap between the Window and Coverage Units, but it's not proportional to distance.

I could have placed mine in the basement, but I mainly use the phone in my main floor office.  So I put it on the main floor, but not in my office, to try and get better coverage through the rest of the house.

I did get about the same numbers everywhere - 6 or 7, generally.  This includes going from the upper floor to the basement.  In the current position, the indicator occasionally changes between 7 and 8, so I'll take it.

The coverage unit is about 40' from my office, on the same floor.  There are two hollow plasterboard/drywall walls in between, as well as one wall that is mostly window.

In my office, on my desk, my handset picked up about 30 dBm of signal, as measured on the handset itself at a fixed position.  That's easily enough to push it up to "five bars" of coverage.  Similar results throughout the floor that houses the Coverage Unit.

The 'ASU' number also increased, as might be expected.  It went from around 3 or 8 to about 16 asu.  (This being Android, the ASU isn't the same as the GSM RSSI or anything, but it does provide an indication of signal strength.)

"Five bars" on my handset appears to be anything over about -85 dBm, and the unit seems workable down to around -100 dBm, so 30 dBm of improvement is significant no matter how you measure it.

In the washroom next to my office, I rarely if ever got any workable signal.  With the Cel-Fi, it's now at "four bars", which is easily workable.

Right next to the Coverage Unit, I get about -65 dBm of signal.  That's up from -91m to -103m dB of signal that I got 'native' from the towers.  So I could always increase my reception further just by moving the unit closer to my point of use, but I don't need to.

The 'H' on my handset also seems to be more consistent - H means HSPA, as opposed to 3G coverage.  So the Cel-Fi appears to work fine with HSPA.  My unit is for Wind Mobile, so YMMV on this point. I have not done rigorous testing to verify this point either.

There was a note on the packaging to read the disclaimer regarding 911 service.  I could not find any such note right away, but I presume the Cel-Fi can goof 911 location services based on cell tower triangulation or the like.

Adding a new, unknown 'tower' into the mix will obviously screw up any location algorithm, although it presumably only goofs it to the extent that the phone is distant from the Window Unit.  That isn't typically very far.  Still, something to know before you buy.

The coupon that is running around - "5BARS", I think - is still valid for $100 off, so use it.  I paid about $32 in tax and fees when it crossed into Canada.  I just missed co-ordinating the delivery with a business trip, but the box is relatively large (if flat) and carrying it back might have been a pill.  If you have a large carry-on it would fit, but take up half the case.  If you have a larger checked bag, it would fit OK.

Obviously not everyone is going to want this thing.  At about $500 at current $CAD exchange rates with coupon, it is an investment in the future.

I would not have bothered except my wife is now also on Wind, making it a better investment.  You can think of it as re-investment of Wind savings into better infrastructure, or a bit of a gyp in that you are paying to shore up Wind's inferior network.  Take your pick.

For my case, it not only works, it works well.  Plus it is plug and play and takes no effort to set up to speak of.  It has no competitors to speak of - JDTeck doesn't count, they all use external antennas and make you run cables.  Cel-Fi does not.

That leaves only two criteria - price, and the fact it only works with one network at a go.  Although some carriers share frequencies, Cel-Fi apparently does not - it is 'locked' to a particular carrier and will not share over to a similar one.  I imagine reprogramming is possible, but I have not heard of anyone successfully convincing Nextivity to reflash their Cel-Fi for an alternative carrier.

For businesses this thing could be a godsend.  It allows you to retain your existing investment and carrier arrangements while not having to live with crap coverage.  In fact, for the price, most medium-sized businesses who are experiencing problems would be nuts not to get it.  For the cost of a single handset, you can eliminate a nagging constant daily problem that may be impacting your business activities more than you care to admit.

Individuals are a harder sell.  I resisted getting one until my wife also switched to Wind, at which point I didn't want her to complain that her new phone was worse than her old Bell.  The Wind plan saves her about $10/mo, which is not stellar, but will still subsidize the Cel-Fi.  For my part, Wind has saved me a considerable amount and has probably paid for the Cel-Fi twice over already, but I was willing to put up with slightly inferior service.  I doubt my wife wants to make the same compromises.

Bottom line:  If you want it, get it.  It works.

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