Sunday 20 January 2019

Homeowners may have to choose between warm home and a mobile signal, warns watchdog

Energy-efficient houses can block voice and data reception, says ComReg

Stock Photo
Stock Photo
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

The telecoms watchdog has warned that homeowners may have to choose between decent phone reception and a warm house.

ComReg says that the drive to build more energy-efficient homes is damaging reception in people's kitchens and living rooms.

New tests show that insulating a home can drastically reduce the strength of a voice or data signal on a smartphone.

The test results show that people may have to choose between a warm home and a good mobile signal this winter.

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.

Allied with weak existing mobile signals already in large parts of the country, it means that Irish phone users may increasingly find it difficult to maintain a phone call over their mobile handset when inside their home.

"The combined effect of the use of more heat-efficient building materials and a great increase in overall mobile voice and data traffic has contributed to a deterioration in the perceived quality of indoor mobile performance in many homes," said the watchdog's test results.

"The building materials which caused the most (difficulty) were those used in heat insulation, especially those with one or more foil layers, and windows, especially triple-glazed windows with aluminium or PVC frames.

"Roofing materials tested did not contribute significantly, while of the brick materials tested only cavity blocks caused significant (difficulty)."

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.

The State watchdog claims that one solution is to use 'wifi calls' inside the home where possible.

This relies on the strength of the home broadband connection and compatible operator services, rather than the cellular signal from the mobile phone company.

However, with about a third of Irish homes still left without usable broadband, the technology is only usable in cities and around large towns.

"In most instances, native wifi calling is likely to be the most effective mechanism to improve indoor reception issues," the regulator says.

"Eir is the only Irish mobile network operator to have rolled out native wifi calling on its network.

"ComReg is actively encouraging all mobile service providers to follow suit and notes that Vodafone plans to launch 'VoWifi' (Voice over wifi) during 2018, which it seems will provide a similar service for Vodafone customers."

An alternative solution, the regulator says, is to consider getting a 'mobile repeater' device which is set to be legalised later this year.

These devices boost what can be a weak mobile signal being received indoors.

Typically, they involve a small antenna placed outside a building with a box inside the building to relay the enhanced signal.

They cost from around €150 and vary according to frequency and mobile provider.

Up to now, they have been unlicensed due to unauthorised interference with mobile phone frequencies, which only ComReg can control.

However, ComReg said that it had decided to exempt mobile phone repeaters in Ireland due to the widespread problems that are being experienced with mobile phone reception.

Irish Independent

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