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Vodafone tries again with femtocell proposal

Telefonica will use Alcatel-Lucent femtocells in Germany

Just days after launching the iPhone in the UK market, mobile operator Vodafone has revisited an initiative to get mobile data off its macro network and onto the fixed line pipes.

This week, the UK operator renamed its femtocell offering, reinforcing speculation that the concept is difficult to market to consumers. The new name is Vodafone Sure Signal, which is certainly friendlier than Vodafone Access Gateway.

In a nutshell, a femtocell is a small device that plugs into a broadband line and improves indoor mobile coverage by boosting the signal. But it also has the added benefit, for operators at least, of moving that voice and data traffic off the cellular network and onto the fixed line network, which in many cases is provided by another operator entirely.

This is an interesting operator strategy and one that is likely to become more popular as mobile networks become increasingly congested with traffic from data hungry smartphones and dongles.

On January 14 Vodafone began selling the iPhone in the UK, making it the third carrier out of the big five to offer the device. Like Orange, Vodafone will be limiting users’ cellular data allowance to 1GB per month, which the company reckons is more than enough. Tethering options are available at £5 for 500MB, £10 for 1.5GB or £15 for 3GB.

Vodafone was the first European carrier to make femtocells available in July 2009 under the name of the Access Gateway, at which time Mike Roberts, principal analyst for Informa Telecoms & Media, noted the move as a showing of support for the femtocell concept. “This is huge for the femtocell industry. A launch by a major operator in tough economic times shows they’re convinced there’s a strong business case for femtocells, initially for providing better voice and data coverage in homes, with more advanced applications and services to come,” he said.

The newly rebranded Sure Signal costs £50 in a one off charge, or £5 a month for 12 months on price plans of £25 or more; or £120 in a one off cost, or £5 a month for 24 months on price plans of less than £25, making it only available to contract customers. The devices are probably quite heavily subsidised but it remains to be seen if consumers will bite at these prices. Still, it’s in the operator’s best interests if they can effectively shift some of their traffic onto another provider’s network with no associated cost.
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14 comments

  1. Seamus 19/01/2010 @ 5:00 pm

    Femtocells? I don’t get it. Why not use WiFi instead? Most homes with broadband can easily get WiFi (if they don’t already have it) and more and more smart-phones are coming out with WiFi support as standard.

    • Andrew 11/02/2010 @ 12:25 am

      Seaamus, the reason is simple. WiFi would not be transparent. Femtos are.
      Firstly the only decent WiFi solution available (other than software based VOIP) is UMA. First you need a UMA handset and second unlike normal smartphones (like the iPhone) UMA handsets keep their WiFi on all the time even when asleep. This hammers the battery. I know, I’ve used a Blackberry with UMA. Most smartphones turn off the WiFi when asleep to conserve power. Because of this you find yourself constantly turning the WiFi on and off when you go out and when you come back home. It really is a pain in the butt.

      With a Femto all you do is register the handset with the femto cell and that’s it. When you go out you use the Macro cells, when you come home your phone switches seemlessly to the femto.
      The best bit though is if like me you have 0-1 bars of signal indoors, with a femto installed your battery suddenly lasts 60-70% longer!!
      It’s a no-brainer I’m afraid.

  2. Raoul 19/01/2010 @ 5:25 pm

    Can someone explain me why would anyone pay for a femtocell at home when he could rely on the broadband connection for voice service using VoIP and for data service using IP at no additional cost.
    Assuming a sufficiently capable (smart)phone we could imagine that these services could be transparent to the end user.

  3. Ayman elnashar 19/01/2010 @ 5:58 pm

    There are several reasons for this approach
    1- not all homes will have wifi
    2- you may use your compitator dsl to expand your network
    3-you will offer cellular calls at fixed rates
    4- not all phones will have easy access wifi as you would need to define wifi ssid and password even for one time while for 3g network you will define it once on your iPhone

  4. Ayman elnashar 19/01/2010 @ 6:01 pm

    Furthermore you can bundle it with the fixed services if you are fixed/mobile operator

  5. Basket 20/01/2010 @ 1:13 pm

    I agree with Seamus, it is not only smartphones Vodafone want to connect but also Mobile Broadband powered laptops and those devices have wifi for sure, then why another box. For Ayman comment on that not all have wifi, well, if you run adsl and no wifi then you most probably not have so much interest in femto anyway.

    • Andrew 11/02/2010 @ 12:31 am

      Femtos are really for calls, texts and mobile (phone) data only. And even on the phone you would switch to WiFi for large downloads.
      There would be no point in connecting a 3G laptop dongle to a femto since the femto needs a 1Mb adsl connection to work. You would use the WiFi instead.
      If you have coverage in your house then you don’t need one. If you are like me where there is a 2 bar Orange Edge signal outside but absolutely nothing inside it would be amazing to say the least.

  6. Nick 20/01/2010 @ 2:36 pm

    Femtocells are not just ‘home base stations’…

    I have a friend who runs a bar in the basement of an old stone building. The lack of phone service drives some customers away. A femtocell is the ideal solution for him since for his customers the service will be transparent – they could use their regular phones for voice or data and not have to worry about dropped calls or lack of service any more.

    • sammyb 29/01/2010 @ 12:56 pm

      But what about having to whitelist the numbers you want to be able to use with the femtocell? No plans for a commercial version just yet, so no, this isn’t much use to your friend right now.

    • Andrew 26/02/2010 @ 3:38 pm

      The problem Nick is that this would not be the case using the current Vodafone solution. A more industrial solution would be needed there.
      The reson is twofold. Firstly you would need to install a femto for each network (so five in all, but only Vodafone currently do one) and secondly even if they did and you did there is a limit to how may mobiles the boxes will handle (the Vodafone one is 4 concurrent connections).
      Thirdly (even though I said there were only 2!) you have to log into the femto and register each handset you want to use.

  7. Zubair 20/01/2010 @ 11:22 pm

    Real value of Femto will come with its deployment in public places as coverage solution. In private deployments it is an enahanced version of Wifi that allows you to make and receive calls from your mobile. Note that femto is also location aware allowing and raft of applications that can be built on it.

    • Greg 22/01/2010 @ 8:42 pm

      It’s not about the WiFi – femtocell’s are particularly attractive to people with low and unreliable voice services on their mobiles as the femtocell solves that problem…

  8. Aliasgar 23/01/2010 @ 6:49 am

    Femtocell is a solution that was developed not for the public places, as far as i understand the technology, the femtocell would be locked on to certain phones in the household and a static IP would be assigned to it. Reason being the people in the household can only access the femto and no one else outside. Regarding applications ‘n’ number of location based services can be pushed through it. Some wage Idea your daily newspaper would reach you on your phone thorugh the Femtocell in a digital format, anything happening exciting in the community you will be notified thorugh the femto network….the applications are endless…

  9. brendan 13/02/2010 @ 6:14 pm

    Femto cells are good at improving coverge indoors, an advantage in the US, but not in Europe. I presume that the selling point is cheaper calls at home, and all without changing handset?

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