Personal Femtocell to Cut Roaming Costs on iPhone, Android

Femtocell maker Ubiquisys has developed a new type of small base station for 3G mobile phones that it calls an attocell. Plugged into a laptop PC with Internet access, it allows 3G phones to bypass international roaming charges and make phone calls as though they were still on their home network, the company said on Wednesday.

Although developed initially for the iPhone, the attocell works out of the box with any 3G phone, and has been tested with smartphones running Android or operating systems from Nokia and Research In Motion, said Ubiquisys.

The attocell connects to a user's laptop via USB, and relays phone calls and mobile Internet access via the laptop's Internet connection. For the latter it connects to the phone using HSPA (High-Speed Packet Access). The product has inherited a lot of technology from Ubiquisys' femtocell products, using the same signaling to talk to an operators network. Femtocells are typically distributed by mobile network operators to improve coverage. Calls made through them are tunneled through a fixed broadband connection, over the Internet and back to the operator's mobile network, where they are connected to the public telephone network.

Like Ubiquisys femtocells, the attocell also monitors its surrounding radio environment to ensure that there is no impact on existing mobile networks. When turned on, the product analyses the IP address and radio environment to determine which country it is in, and then configures the radio power to the locally allowed level.

Depending on the allowed power output, the transmitter could reach just 5 millimeters, or cover a whole room. In the first case, the phone has to be placed on top of the attocell, with calls made using the phone's headset, said Keith Day, vice president of marketing at Ubiquisys. Radio licensing regulations make the 5 millimeter range the most likely scenario, said Day.

The cost of the phone calls will be up to operators that sign on to sell the product. Ubiquisys has been talking to operators for a few months, and is optimistic about the attocell's future, but isn't ready to announce the first operator customer, Day said.

Today, there are a number options for international travellers that want to cut the cost of calling. One is to call from a PC using a VOIP (voice over Internet Protocol) service such as Skype. Skype also offers a mobile client that can be installed on smartphones and allow users to make calls via a wireless data connection. Travellers outside their home country will need to find a cheap or free Wi-Fi hotspot in order to avoid 3G data roaming charges for such Skype calls, though.

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