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How can we solve the UK's mobile coverage problem? 

Anyone who's ever had to stand by a window or go upstairs to get a mobile signal will know 'not spots' in coverage are still rife in the UK. Typically indoors in homes or smaller business premises, the situation is getting worse as the latest building standards for thermal insulation exacerbate the problem. And what's more, some vehicles are now experiencing the same problem.

Ofcom is currently consulting on legalising narrowband repeaters as consumer products. And if this goes ahead, we'll all be able to buy and install a simple electronic device in our homes, workplaces and vehicles that'll give outdoor levels of coverage, deep indoors.

But while repeaters can go a long way to alleviate the problem, they do have their downsides. This technology currently needs approval by the mobile operator(s) on whose frequencies they operate. The approval process is time-consuming and expensive – so it's not a realistic option for individuals or small businesses.

And despite it being easy to buy cheap repeaters over the internet and install them yourself, they often cause interference to the mobile networks they're relaying. As a result, they're unapproved and illegal to operate in the UK and Ofcom has seized hundreds of such units in recent years due to the interference they have caused.

So how can we reap the coverage benefits of cheap, self-installed repeaters without the interference problems?

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Four design features hold the key

When we carried out a study for Ofcom on the causes of interference, and steps that could be taken to alleviate it, we found including four design features in the repeater would reduce interference to negligible levels. They are:

  1. only transmitting on the channel that's currently in use by the mobile
  2. switching off its transmitter when there's no mobile using the repeater
  3. reducing its transmitter power when close to the base station that it's repeating
  4. installing a mechanism to prevent it oscillating.

These could all be included at a low cost and wouldn't require any action by the user. And these features have all been included in the technical conditions that Ofcom has proposed.

If Ofcom's proposals come into effect then repeaters that comply with the technical conditions will be authorised in the UK as licence-exempt devices – a similar status to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth devices. Although they're radio transmitters, they wouldn't need a transmitting licence or approval by the network operators. As consumers, we could simply buy and install them ourselves.

So what will be the impact of this in the marketplace? Essentially, mainstream consumer electronics companies will be able to sell repeaters through the main high street and online channels. The 'grey market' products currently available online are likely to be squeezed out by the new licence-exempt products.

The experience of many mobile users at present is that they can't get reception where they most want it – despite the claims of extensive coverage by the network operators. But the operators can't be expected to finance individual coverage solutions for millions of premises. Allowing repeaters to become consumer products is a low cost way to help create much more consistent coverage.

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