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

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

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 US carrier to introduce a femtocell service, called Airave, in the cities of 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 US, femtocell trials are under way in the UK (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 US$100 cost of the box. Then there's the US$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 US$10 a month for unlimited Airave minutes; for families, that's an extra US$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 mobile 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.

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Ed Sutherland

Computerworld
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