Saturday 7 December 2019

Ask Adrian: Our technology editor tackles your trickiest tech problems

Keeping insulated: many new-build homes can struggle to get a phone signal inside
Keeping insulated: many new-build homes can struggle to get a phone signal inside


Question: We moved house a few years ago from the country to Dublin. To our absolute amazement, we could no longer receive or make calls on our mobile phones once inside our home. All our neighbours have the same problem. We both have iPhones and our all-in-one internet/TV/phone provider is Virgin. Can you advise us on how we can remedy this please, as we are constantly missing calls -and most times the mobiles don't even ring.

- Elizabeth (via email)

Answer: I can relate to this as I live in a newly built housing development close to the centre of Dublin. Most of us in the development have a similar problem, although it is not as severe as the one you're describing - we can get enough of a signal inside the house to take calls and get texts but not quite enough to watch a YouTube video for more than a few seconds.

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In our case, the reason for the poor signal is down to two things: the location of the development and the materials used in the construction of the new houses. Geographically, it's a new development on a site that would not have been prioritised previously by mobile operators for service.

Part of the reason for this is that it is next to a school, where operators sometimes find it incredibly difficult to secure permission for sites or masts due to local community opposition. Another reason is down to the operators themselves, which are sometimes slow in updating their coverage maps, even when there are no local protests over masts and antennae.

But the main reason is actually the way the houses themselves are built. You don't say what kind of a house you've moved into in Dublin, but if it has been built in the last five to 10 years, the chances are that it's a contributing factor to the lack of a signal.

As you may know, almost all newly built houses are now required to be much more energy-efficient than homes built 20 or 30 years ago. That's great for keeping warm in winter. But the very materials that make them energy-efficient also make it much harder for mobile signals to get through their walls, ceilings or windows with anything close to full strength.

This has been confirmed by Ireland's telecoms regulator, Comreg, which has conducted tests to show that insulating a home can drastically reduce the strength of a voice or data signal on a smartphone.

Heat insulation and triple-glazed or PVC windows are the worst offenders, muffling good reception to the point of frustration for phone users. Insulating the roof interferes less with a mobile signal, the regulator says.

Without getting too technical about it, the main problem is that heat and radio signals consist of electromagnetic energy at different frequencies. So material that is effective at keeping heat in the building is also effective at keeping the radio signals out, it says.

Of course, it's possible that this isn't the main reason at all, that you're just in a very poorly served area for some reason. There are certainly some weak spots in and around the capital.

If it is an operator issue, you and the neighbours should all get on to one or more operator to let them know about the issue. In my experience, network operators generally take such coverage complaints seriously.

From a technical point of view, you have a couple of potential options. The first is to see whether your operator supports what's called Wi-Fi calling. This basically lets you use your ordinary home Wi-Fi to make and take calls on your smartphone. Both Eir and Vodafone support this feature.

The other option is to consider buying a mobile repeater device. These devices boost what can be a weak mobile signal being received indoors into a decent one. But they're dependent on there being a reasonably decent signal outside the house. So they're ideal for homes with the problem I described in my opening comments above, where the materials in the house's construction are the problem.

Typically, repeaters involve a small antenna placed outside a building (on the roof or an outside wall) with a box inside the building to relay the enhanced signal. These kits generally cost between €400 and €600, although you may need to pay extra for installation (possibly about €100) if you're not handy yourself.

I can't personally recommend one kit over another as I've never quite needed to hook one up myself.

However, it's not completely straightforward buying one as they're strictly regulated and many online (marketed as "mobile boosters" or "amplifiers") aren't legal for use in Ireland as they overwhelm the local mobile network and sometimes disrupt other people's services. Comreg came out with a list of approved manufacturers for legal mobile repeaters. They include Waterford-based Stella Doradus. Companies that sell the equipment include Cork-based Novatel.

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