The full story of Vodafone's pioneering 'open femto' trial in East Garston - can we fix the UK's mobile signal not-spots?

You can tell when technology’s doing its job well when you don’t have to think about it. In the UK, chances are pretty good that your phone signal’s solid enough for you to take it for granted. That’s despite the huge amounts of technological wizardry ticking over in the background. Spare a thought, then, for the 2 per cent of places in the UK that can’t get any mobile signal at all – the so-called ‘not-spots’ – which lie in areas geographically impossible for mobile signal to reach. Until now.

Read on for the inside scoop on how you bring signal to a place where there is none, and the very real changes that doing so makes to the people in those communities…

Addressing the Not-Spots

Sometimes they happen because of the location of the building you’re in, or the building type itself. These problem areas are called not-spots, and all mobile phone networks around the world struggle with them. You can fall victim to a not-spot no matter where you live – even in cities with lots of mobile phone masts.

The three things that make a not-spot are your location, your environment and your phone. If you’re a long way from your network’s mobile phone masts, live in or near buildings or geographical basins or simply have a phone with poor reception, you might find yourself with issues.

“You can fall victim to a not-spot no matter where you live – even in cities with lots of mobile phone masts.”

But the team at Vodafone all believe it’s time to bring some of the worst areas for mobile reception in line with the rest of the UK – time they got to experience the joys of Facebooking from the bus-stop and playing Words With Friends in the pub. That’s why we’ve been trialling our pioneering Open Femto technology in a tiny village in East Garston, and why we’re about to expand that work across the breadth of Great Britain.

Hang on… What is an open femto?

Good question. Get ready for some trivia ammo… When you whittle away all the jargon, a femtocell is essentially a small base station. The important thing to know, however, is that there’s two types of femto tech standards – open and closed.

Closed femto is what you’ll find inside our home Sure Signal units – it’s a means of boosting signal strength for a finite number of people. What that means is it’s perfect for connecting just the people you allow from the comfort of your home.

Loaded with that knowledge, you’ve probably guessed that open femto is the opposite – it’s a scaled up version of the same kit, allowing anyone within range to connect to Vodafone’s network. It’s capable of being a town-wide solution for areas that prove otherwise impossible to dish out a mobile signal.

Enter East Garston…

Ok, so we’ve got our femtocell technology sorted, but we needed somewhere to trial it. That’s a job for East Garston, a tiny village in Berkshire that holds a population of just over 200 people. Despite being relatively close to Vodafone’s HQ in Newbury, East Garston had always been a ‘not-spot’ for mobile connectivity.

That’s until earlier this year, when we swooped in with several open femto signal boosters. Our subtle little cells have been dotted around East Garston’s busiest areas: the local pub, the post office, the village hall, the social club and, a little bit ironically, inside the roof of an old phone box. With these in place, our team were ready to bring mobile communication to a place that’d never known the joys of one before.

“It’s been something of a revolution, changing people’s habits for the better.”

And it’s been something of a revolution, changing people’s habits for the better. To find out how, we’ve spoken to Alan Breadmore, clerk to the parish council, and the man who helped make the trial possible: “There was no mobile signal in the village from any provider,” he explains, “and that presented some very basic problems for local people.”

Those problems ranged from delivery drivers getting lost around the town and being unable to call for directions, to the Queen’s Arms pub facing huge phone bills as a result of the locals having to use the landline. “Our phone bill used to be astronomical as customers would use the pub phones. Now they can use their own phones,” says landlord Adam Lyddiard.

Adam explains that the only alternative before Vodafone’s open femto boosters was to haplessly wander around looking for signal. “People would line up by the window or stand under a tree in the car park or wander around and stop when they got coverage.”

And Alan echoes Adam’s sentiments: “Before, you had to drive up the local hill to make a call. Quite often you’d see one of your friends there. Other places you could sometimes get a signal included the back of the hall and standing on the picnic benches.”

But the key thing is that both Adam and Alan have seen noticeable changes in behaviour since the boosters have been in place. “People can bring their work with them to the pub,” says Alan, talking about the horses, which makes up a large chunk of East Garston’s business. “We are in racing territory here so trainers can come here and use their phones to place their bets.”

It’s not just the Queen’s Arms that’s seen a change in activity, though. “The bar in the social club is open most evenings and I’m sure it’s helped boost their business,” says Alan, “because people now go down there in the evening to use their phones.”

On average, the people in East Garston have been making over 2000 calls a month that wouldn’t have been made before. As Alan puts it: “Mobile phone coverage is now a part of normal life.”

What’s next?

With East Garston’s trial being such an unbridled success, it’s only right that we look to the future. Rightly, the connectivity in EG’s new hotspots has gotten the village excited. “There’s not a week goes by without someone tapping me on the shoulder when I’m walking through the village and asking when they are going to get coverage in their area,” says Alan.

“The UK’s final 2 per cent is the last piece of the puzzle…”

That kind of feedback is why we’re on a mission to fill in the blanks and bring 3G connectivity to more of the UK’s not-spots.

The UK’s final 2 per cent is the last piece of the puzzle, so we’re already working on bringing that percentage down as best we can. The next step? Bring the open femto tech that’s changed East Garston for the better to a further 12 communities that suffer from the blight of non-existent mobile signal.

Stay tuned to Vodafone Social for more information on the wheres and whens of these trials, and how we plan to try and connect every last dot in the UK’s mobile signal map.