Sprint Airave 2.5 - image from their site as trying to dig my Airave out of its spot is a bit of a chore

Back in December, I wrote about having to install a Sprint Airave 2.5 just to receive phone calls. Since then I’ve had several months of nearly-stable phone service, with plenty of interesting problems that you just wouldn’t expect to see.

The Sprint Airave is an in-home tower that uses your internet connection to route and receive calls and 3G data. This is extremely useful if, like me, you live next to an absurdly overloaded Sprint tower that fails to deliver calls inbound. It includes a GPS receiver, so it knows where you are at and can coordinate with the closest towers for hand-offs (at least theoretically). It also has a multi-port hub built into the back that you’re supposed to connect your computer/Xbox/anything that is less important than a phone call.

I got this in the middle of December, back when I was missing about half my phone calls, and it worked pretty well for about two months. I encouraged my friend who lives in a basement to look into one, as well, and she ended up getting it.

Then weird things started happening.

The Sprint Airave becomes an island unto itself.

One of the qualities the Sprint Airave 2.5 boasts is being able to hand-off from the Airave to the tower. It’s mostly for severe signal issues. Unfortunately for me, I have perfect signal, just a terrible tower that’s in line for an upgrade.

As I walk out my door, I can get about two houses down and kiss the call goodbye. Evidently, the hand-off doesn’t work when the tower doesn’t. But that’s OK, because my tower is supposedly going to be fixed. Someday.

The Sprint Airave works great, when it wants to.

Sitting about 20 feet from the Airave, I watch a signal monitor app as my 3G appears, switches to the tower, and switches back.

At my friend’s (the basement dweller’s apartment), the Airave works perfectly one day, then the next it’s out while still claiming to be working. It decides to lose the GPS lock about once a week, making her plug the GPS cable back into it and running it across the living room and out the door. The Airave doesn’t seem to want to work when it loses GPS, as I guess the network fear is you’ll power it up and then drive it somewhere else and interfere with tower operations or intercept phone calls or something.

It’s getting worse as the network gets better

It seems that as the Sprint LTE network is approaching my house (LTE is six blocks from me now), the problems with the Sprint Airave have decided to manifest themselves in new and playful ways. Calls which used to be connected in seconds now may take a minute before they dial. Sometimes it’s faster to yank the unit’s power and grab the real tower signal.

Unfortunately, my tower is still a horrible, horrible thing – and it’s getting worse, as I seem to suddenly live in hipster central, with a bunch of iDevices. Now, I can go six blocks from my house and pick up LTE and 17Mbps speeds, so there’s hope. And the Airave got me to the point where I could at least suffer through to see LTE nearby, so in that it’s probably done its intended job.

There are problems with the suggested setup.

The suggested setup for this device is internet > Sprint Airave > wired/wireless router > computer. Or internet > Airave > computer / router. You can put an XBox or Playstation at the “computer” level. I believe this suggested setup is so that there’s no chance the Airave can get bogged down on an internet routed call.

However, I’ve found when running this configuration that everything is uniquely horrible and doesn’t improve the audio at all. Don’t do it (or do, your call). Any configuration I’ve done it in yields the same phone experience, and my particular setup ensures a good computer experience.

I have it set up as 1: internet. 2a: wireless router 2b: Sprint Airave 3A: computer, Xbox – and that seems to work for me perfectly. Basically, any configuration where only one network cable was plugged into the Airave worked, and any configuration where a computer or device was behind the thing worked badly.

To clarify, a computer behind the Sprint Airave seemed very slow, connections seemed limited, and my computer was sad.

Should you get it?

The Sprint Airave is generally free from Sprint if you’re having problems making or receiving phone calls, but it comes with some random FCC tax thrown into the mix which makes it cost a few bucks a month. If you’re wanting to ditch Sprint, they can probably be persuaded to give you a credit on that.

It works best when you can position the device and have the 20-foot GPS wire antenna somewhere near a window, but as my friend the basement dweller has discovered, you can grab a GPS lock and then disconnect the thing, as long as you’re keeping power to it.

It’s a good stopgap measure, but unfortunately it’s not without its problems. These range from inconsistent call quality due to internet conditions, to calls passing to the tower you’re closest to, to varying signal strength and quality as the Airave decides to tune itself. Basically, it’s like having any cell company in your house.

It’s great if you’re in a server room or a basement, but if you’re in an apartment with roommates and neighbors who are also similarly on Sprint, you’re going to need to lock the thing down to only talk to your devices. The Airave has a five device limit, and that can get filled up pretty quick if you’re having a party, or your neighbors are home before you.

As I recall, the management to lock it down to your devices is on Sprint’s website, which has been down for maintenance the past hour or two (typical).

It costs nothing to try, and if it doesn’t work for you they’ll send you a box to ship it back in. All in all, it’s pretty great when it works.

[Sprint]