Mobile signal boosters: What’s legal?

Most mobile reception boosters on sale in the UK – especially online – are illegal to use. However, there are a couple of legal options, namely femtocells and smart repeaters.

Mobile signal boosters: What's legal?

I’ve tested both over the past few months, but let’s totally nail the legal issue first. I know that some of you are still confused about the rules. Femtocells supplied by mobile networks are legal, but what about mobile boosters and, in particular, smart repeaters?

Mobile boosters occupy a grey area and the official advice from UK telecoms regulator Ofcom can be confusing. For example, one page on its website claims “you won’t find these devices for sale on the High Street or through your mobile phone company”, and “if you are having coverage problems, don’t be tempted to try and boost your signal with an illegal mobile repeater”. But a different page on the same site says the regulator can make “regulations exempting the installation or use from the requirement for a licence”, although it “has not granted any licences for the installation or use of repeaters nor made any exemption regulations”.

So, are smart repeaters legal or not? And are they “Ofcom-approved” (a phrase you’ll often see used in reviews)? I tried to untangle these contradictions by speaking to a couple of parties in the industry, including Andrew Williams who is the EMEA technical support manager at Nextivity, the leading manufacturer of smart repeaters.

“Technically, Ofcom doesn’t actually approve anything,” he said. “It does, however, take an opinion on what’s legal or not, and can take enforcement action against devices used illegally. The important things to note regarding smart repeaters are: they aren’t licence-exempt like a phone and, therefore, must operate within the terms of the mobile operator’s licence conditions (only on its specific frequencies and not interfering with other frequencies); and the network must be able to control them. In practice, this means the network must be able to turn the repeater off if Ofcom tells it to.”

I also asked Ofcom for clarification on its position, given the somewhat confusing statements on its website. An Ofcom spokesperson said: “The use of a smart repeater may be authorised under the licence of an operator when connecting to their network. The device would not necessarily have to be supplied by the network, but its use would have to be with their agreement. It would be helpful for the supplier’s website and point-of-sale advice to be clear on this.”

The last point is certainly true. If you look at the companies selling Nextivity’s Cel-Fi RS2 smart repeater online, none make it clear if they’re selling the equipment with the approval of the mobile networks or not. After chatting with the relevant parties, I’m fairly certain – despite it not being explicitly stated – that smart repeaters on sale via third parties are network-approved.

Ofcom’s spokesperson also reinforced a point made by Nextivity’s Williams: “Although smart repeaters may be installed in user premises, a key feature is that they are monitored and controlled by the host network to ensure they only operate within the terms and conditions of the network operators’ licences, under which they are authorised. Other types of standalone repeater that are neither covered by the network licence nor exempted from licensing are not authorised, and their use would be illegal.”

As it becomes widely known that only smart repeaters are legal in the UK, I’d expect illegal kit websites to start flogging their products as legitimate smart repeaters. After all, they already make bogus claims about legality and, in many cases, even falsely show a PC Pro logo on their website, claiming the publication has recommended them. Please, therefore, be careful when buying a smart repeater. If the kit has a Yagi antenna, long coaxial lead or looks like the amplifiers youths put in their Citroëns, it’s probably an illegal booster.

Also bear in mind that, even if you buy a legal smart repeater, you could end up paying £500 for the kit – only to have it remotely deactivated by your mobile network.

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