When femtocells first appeared several years ago, they garnered little interest from mobile network operators which mostly saw them as expensive, difficult to manage and unnecessary.
Then the smartphone wave broke, mobile data consumption soared and some carriers including AT&T suddenly faced a capacity crunch in smartphone-heavy urban markets including New York and San Francisco.
Now AT&T has joined a growing list of mobile carriers including Britain’s Vodafone that are embracing femtocells – micro cell stations designed to offload mobile phone calls and data onto a DSL or cable broadband lines while extending coverage in the home or office.
Femtocells ensure strong signal coverage inside buildings while operating as a bridge between the cellular network and the internet -in use, a mobile phone connects wirelessly to the femtocell over the cellular network and the call is routed over the internet. (A rival technology called UMA (Universal Mobile Access) used by T-Mobile USA in some of its handsets, routes in-house calls over a local Wi-Fi network to a router then via the internet but tends to drain mobile phone batteries.)
AT&T chose the CTIA telecoms conference in Las Vegas to announce the national rollout of the AT&T 3G MicroCell beginning in mid-April. The MicroCell, developed in conjunction with Cisco, supports both 3G data and voice services and will cost customers up to $150. However AT&T claims most customers will end up paying less than this upfront.
For example, customers can sign up for a $20-a-month plan that enables them to make unlimited calls through the MicroCell without using minutes in their monthly wireless voice plan and get a $100 rebate and new subscribers to AT&T’s U-verse or fixed line broadband service qualify for a $50 rebate.
Those qualifying for both rebates could end up paying nothing upfront for the MicroCell which seems like a pretty good deal, particularly if you have a big, expensive family plan that can be scaled back by substituting the $20-a-month MicroCell call plan.
AT&T is not saying how much it is paying Cisco for the MicroCell, but the Femtocell Forum says prices have declined sharply over the past three years and could drop to below $100 for high volume orders.
The AT&T 3G MicroCell supports up to 10 cellular lines which users can configure online. Four of the lines can be in use at the same time. If successful, the AT&T femtocell programme is likely to be copied by other carriers in the US and elsewhere.