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

Are Femtocells Just for Voice Calls or Can I Also Use Them for Data?

Sprint's Airave, the only femtocell service commercially available in the U.S. today, supports 1xRTT data but does not support high-speed 1xEV-DO data. However, 3G femtocell services will provide high-speed data access in Japan in early 2009 and are likely to appear in Europe soon after, analysts say.

Can I Take One on the Road with Me?

That depends on where you're going. While they're intended for home use, femtocells can be taken on the road (Sprint's Airave box is about the same size as a standard home router) -- provided you're staying in the U.S. and the wireless carrier offers coverage at the new location.

"The Sprint one uses GPS and won't transmit unless its location is within Sprint's territory and Sprint says 'yes,'" Nogee says -- an assertion confirmed by Sprint's Airave documentation (PDF). Sprint recommends that you check the ZIP code of the area to which you're traveling to confirm that the service is available there.

What's Required for Setup?

Femtocell devices require you to have a wired broadband Internet connection, such as DSL or cable; they won't work with satellite or dial-up connections. In addition, you must have an available power outlet and a free Ethernet port on your modem or router. And, of course, you'll need a cell phone and calling plan with the carrier offering the femtocell service.

Sprint's Airave box requires little setup or configuration; however, it must be located near a window for the GPS feature to work, according to Sprint's Airave documentation (PDF). The global positioning service "can take up to an hour to locate a satellite," according to Ovum analyst Steven Hartley.

Once Set Up, How Well Do They Work?

Femtocells repeatedly scan the environment, seeking out the strongest signal to optimize the connection. Independent tests of Sprint's Airave from the likes of Engadget and Slashgear found the signal to be strong and clear in areas that were weak or nonfunctional without Airave. BusinessWeek , on the other hand, found the coverage to be spotty.

Once a connection is established, it won't exceed the maximum data rate of your broadband network, experts say -- something to keep in mind if you plan to have multiple callers using the service simultaneously.

What About Security?

Femtocells use proprietary security, with a firewall that sits between the caller and the carrier.

Critics of Sprint's Airave have pointed out that the device ships "unlocked" to all Sprint customers -- in other words, anyone with a Sprint phone in range of your femtocell can use your connection. However, the company points out that in most cases, other users would have to be inside your home to be in range of the femtocell. You can also choose to restrict access to the service to up to 50 select phone numbers.

Whether other carriers will make their femtocell devices open to other customers by default remains to be seen.

Will My Carrier Offer Femtocells Soon?

Whether we'll see more U.S. carriers join Sprint in offering femtocell service in 2009 remains unclear. Verizon Wireless is "exploring [femtocells'] use but have not committed to rollout plans yet," says Tom Pica, a company spokesman.

AT&T, the nation's largest wireless carrier, remains mum on its vision for femtocells. However, recent reports suggest that the carrier is asking suppliers to submit proposals for developing such a service. Additionally, AT&T is part owner of 2Wire, maker of DSL home gateways. 2Wire recently announced plans to make gateways with femtocell functionality.

If true, the reports wouldn't surprise In-Stat's Nogee, who says AT&T's entrance into femtocells is likely.

As for T-Mobile, although the international venture arm of the company has invested in femtocell manufacturer Ubiquisys, industry watchers say T-Mobile USA is sticking with its Hotspot@Home service, based on Wi-Fi rather than femtocell technology.

Who Else Is on Board the Femtocell Train?

Although femtocells are still in their infancy, a number of manufacturers have announced products supporting the new technology. Samsung Telecommunications America is the manufacturer of Sprint's Airave femtocell, released in 2007. In September 2008, U.K.-based Ubiquisys was chosen to provide femtocell access points to the first 3G femtocell deployment by Japan's carrier Softbank.

And earlier this year, the U.S. equipment makers Motorola and Netgear unveiled Ethernet gateways that include both femtocell access points and Wi-Fi routers. These devices won't be sold directly to consumers, but to carriers, who will in turn sell them to their subscribers when they roll out femtocell services.

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

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