Femtocell FAQ: Your Own 'Cell-Phone Tower'?

Are you one of those unlucky souls who enjoys decent cell phone reception when you're out and about, but can't get a signal at home or in the office? You're not alone. Indoor phone calls have long been a weak point of cellular coverage.

That's why femtocell technology has created such a stir over the past year or so, as the idea of using a device like a broadband router to boost cellular reception indoors has seemed to be on the verge of materializing. Analysts and the media speculated that consumers would see a flood of such devices, known as femtocells, by the end of 2008.

Now, however, that timeline has shifted to late 2009 or 2010 as a number of questions surrounding femtocells remain unanswered. In fact, only Sprint Nextel is currently offering a commercial femtocell product in the U.S.

This gap between the initial hype and the eventual introduction of femtocells has one advantage, however: It gives consumers a chance to learn more about the technology, including its benefits and drawbacks.

What Are Femtocells?

The term "femtocell" refers to the smallest unit of a cellular network and, by extension, the devices and services that make use of them. Other small -- but not quite as small -- cells include Wi-Fi cells (a.k.a. microcells) and Bluetooth cells (picocells). At the other end of the spectrum are macrocells, such as those used in carriers' cell towers.

What Do They Do?

Femtocells address the problem of poor cell phone reception indoors by taking advantage of the proliferation of home and small office broadband connections. Like the wireless router that distributes a DSL or cable broadband signal throughout your home, a femtocell device -- sometimes called a miniature cellular base station or a mini-cell tower -- grabs your carrier's cellular signal and boosts it for indoor use, routing your calls through the broadband connection rather than directly through the larger cellular network.

What Are the Benefits?

Subscribers get a stronger, clearer, more reliable signal at home -- which means more users may finally be able to ditch their landline phone service for good. Carriers benefit by being able to offload traffic from their main networks, saving the substantial cost of building more cell towers.

How Far Do They Reach?

Femtocells have a range of around 5,000 square feet and are intended for use inside a single home or small office. If you leave the building in the middle of a call, the call is handed off to your carrier's nearest cell tower.

Where Can I Get One?

Femtocells are not like broadband routers, where you can choose from among a number of hardware vendors. Because femtocell devices are tied to wireless carriers using licensed spectrum, you have to wait for your mobile provider to offer femtocell service.

In September 2007, Sprint Nextel became the first U.S. carrier to introduce a femtocell service, called Airave, in Denver and Indianapolis. The company rolled out the service nationwide in August 2008. A femtocell box plugs into your existing router or modem, sending incoming and outgoing cellular calls through your broadband connection. Up to three callers can use the service at the same time.

Outside the U.S., femtocell trials are under way in the U.K. (through the provider O2), Spain (Vodafone) and Japan (Softbank); Softbank plans to roll out a 3G femtocell data service in Japan in January 2009. Analysts such as Stuart Carlaw at ABI Research predict that a million femtocell devices could be sold worldwide this year, with 150 million users by 2012.

How Much Does It Cost?

Cost is one of the questions still without a clear answer. Critics point to the many fees associated with Sprint's Airave femtocell service. First, there's the $100 cost of the box. Then there's the $5 monthly service charge, in addition to the fee for your regular calling plan and minutes used. If you don't already have an unlimited plan, you can opt to pay an extra $10 a month for unlimited Airave minutes; for families, that's an extra $20 per month. Finally, add the cost of your broadband service.

"If the 'network is everywhere,' it might be a hard sell to tell their customers, 'It's everywhere but in your house, and for that, we want another $100,'" said Allen Nogee, an analyst at In-Stat.

"You really can't sell these as stand-alone boxes," ABI's Carlaw says. Carriers will need to market the service as part of a flat-rate data plan, he says.

What If I Switch Carriers?

Because femtocells are locked to individual carriers, if you switch wireless providers, you'll need to purchase a new box.

Can I Use My Existing Phone?

Yes. One selling point for femtocells is that they will work with your current cell phone. Similar services that use Wi-Fi for offloading home calls, such as T-Mobile's HotSpot@Home, require consumers to purchase a dual-mode handset.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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