Femtocell FAQ: Time for a 'personal mobile phone tower'?

Mobile service miracle or mirage? We answer 18 burning questions about femtocell technology.

Are you one of those unlucky souls who enjoys decent mobile 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 US.

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' mobile phone towers.

What do they do?

Femtocells address the problem of poor mobile 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 towers.

How far do they reach?

Femtocells have a range of around 5,000 square feet.

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Ed Sutherland

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