What is a Femtocell?

Femtocells are in the news lately, especially with AT&T’s announcement of an upcoming nationwide rollout, beginning in April. However, they aren’t the only ones in the Femtocell game. Sprint and Verizon are running trials in select US cities and T-Mobile is testing them in Europe.

Let’s explore what exactly is a Femtocell, what does it do, and should you consider one.

Femtocell Theory – No Coverage at Home:

Femtocells are an idea to solve the problem of having no service at home, yet you live in a coverage area. You may be obstructed by hills, walls, brick, steel, etc. It’s most likely an area that’s already adequately covered by towers but in your home’s situation – the signal is weak. Therefore the cell company is not likely to upgrade anything in the near future for you.

The idea is simple, plug in the device and it will give your phone 3G coverage, locally. The device in turn connects to the carrier via the internet and suddenly you have coverage for about 4 devices in your home.

Its kind of like a wireless access point for your mobile phone. Sounds great, in theory, right?

The Downsides of the Femtocell:

Femtocells aren’t as rosy as they seem. Let’s think about this for a second – Its a device to improve the network’s coverage in an area they don’t feel is worthy of their investment. If it sounds like they’re outsourcing their network onto the customer, that’s exactly what Femtocells are doing. Its also a little murky about what this “magic” device entails..

Question #1 – What does shared bandwidth mean?

Since a Femtocell is taking your cell signal / data and running it through your home internet connection, its going to be running alongside all of your internet activities. Browsing, Downloading, IM, Email, Gaming consoles, Skype and whatever else you do over the internet. If a family member saturates the connection by watching a Netflix movie, your call quality could suffer. Or, if Quality of Service controls are active, your internet connection could suffer.

Bottom line – With a femtocell, you are giving up some of your personal internet bandwidth to compensate for the mobile provider’s network.

Question #2 – What about your neighbors?

If the Femtocell device isn’t password protected, or limited in any way other than how many calls can connect at the same time you can run into problems. So, if you live in an apartment complex, building or anywhere within about 5,000 square feet of neighbors, they can benefit from your Femtocell coverage if the device isn’t secured.

Bottom line – Luckily Femtocell service does allow you to manage the device and only allow authorized users. It’s not a free-for-all open device.

Question #3 – Who’s really paying for this, and who really benefits?

– You pay the monthly service fee for your internet connection.
– You buy the Femtocell device.
– You also pay your mobile provider an additional fee for the privilege of unlimited calling while on your Femtocell..

Bottom line – That’s right, you are paying the service provider through your internet connection bandwidth, the device purchase and an optional monthly fee.

What do they get out of it?

– Improving their signal coverage for a profit by outsourcing an antennae to you.
– Less traffic on their towers for free by using your bandwidth instead of theirs.
– A less overloaded network.
– Profit from the device purchase, monthly fees and less infrastructure costs.

Seems like they’re sending you the following message:

You want better service coverage at home, less dropped calls and faster data? You buy the antennae, you provide the bandwidth and you pay us monthly for the privilege of something we should be doing already.

Since you are providing them with your network connection, the least they could do is make all calls via the Femtocell free – No monthly fee. Or perhaps a rebate for your internet connection.

Note: it does seem that you aren’t required to pay the monthly fee. (Except for Sprint’s) However, you then are in no better position other than donating your bandwidth for better coverage.

Is a Femtocell right for you?

It all really comes down to where you live and make most of your mobile calls. You need to consider the following questions:

– Does a competing mobile provider have better coverage at your home?
– Are you totally committed to your provider (iPhone)?
– Does a land-line at home make more sense instead?
– Would your internet connection support this without problems?

Of course, the final question is – Do you really want to send the mobile companies the message that you will pay for their shortcomings?

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