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

Mobile service miracle or mirage? We answer 18 burning questions about 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, UK-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 US 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.

Will femtocells reduce the demand for Wi-Fi?

Not likely, say analysts. Wi-Fi is already well ingrained in home and office networking, and femtocells are becoming part of Wi-Fi routers, not alternatives to them.

"Femtocells and Wi-Fi are complementary," Carlaw says. The analyst sees carriers bundling the two technologies together, with one offering voice support and the other data networking.

What about WiMax?

Femtocells are likely to help, not hurt, WiMax. Players such as Sprint and Clearwire are looking at femtocells as a potential way to avoid costly WiMax buildouts in urban areas. Instead of a larger "macro network" delivering the faster and longer-range wireless signal, home broadband networks could be employed.

Comcast is one of those companies interested in seeing the development of WiMax femtocell base stations. The cable giant is an investor in Clearwire, which along with Sprint is creating the nationwide Xohm WiMax network in the US.

Earlier this month, an Unstrung report speculated that the cable giant will introduce WiMax femtocells during the second half of 2009. Although Comcast hasn't commented on the news, Clearwire has set aside 5 MHz of spectrum solely for femtocells, according to ABI's Carlaw.

What else do I need to know about femtocells?

A number of questions persist, including ownership of the devices, potential interference as femtocells become more common and how carriers will market the technology. The answers could unlock US$70 billion in savings for operators and put an end to the most nagging problem for mobile consumers: making indoor calls.

Ed Sutherland is a freelance writer who has followed the rise and fall of countless technologies over the years.

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Ed Sutherland

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