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Femtocells await their day in the sun

26 августа 2009

Femtocells, small boxes that act like miniature cellular towers, have long been held out as a solution to spotty cellphone service and dropped calls.

But the devices, which plug into broadband Internet connections to provide improved coverage inside homes, have been slow to catch on with consumers since they hit the market late last year.

Support among big wireless carriers has been uneven. AT&T Inc. doesn't sell femtocells. Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel Corp. offer the devices, though mostly as a stop gap in areas of poor coverage. Overseas, they're sold by a few carriers in Japan and Europe, including Softbank Corp. and Vodafone Group Plc.

"There's still been a little bit of a wait-and-see attitude to make sure there's more demand," said Paul Gilliland, senior director of wireless systems at Samsung Electronics Co., which makes femtocells for both Verizon and Sprint.

Femtocells are the latest in a long string of devices intended to extend or enhance cellphone service, from stick-on boosters that attach to handsets to portable antennas. Deutsch Telekom AG's T-Mobile USA offers a in-home service that uses a Wi-Fi router and special handsets that can hop back and forth between Wi-Fi and cellular networks.

Femtocells don't require special cellphones -- they use the same radio spectrum as carrier's cellular towers. They extend cellular coverage by tapping into a landline connection and routing calls over the Internet, rather than relying on towers.

Most femtocells cover up to 5,000 square feet and handle up to three simultaneous calls. While each device is typically tied to one account, the owner can grant access to other cellphones as long as they use the same carrier.

Backers say femtocell devices are poised for broader adoption, helped by newer models that support next-generation 3G wireless services such as Internet surfing on smart phones and video streaming.

"It's fallen off the eye chart, but work is taking place," said Shiv Bakhashi, an analyst for research firm Mobile Perspectives.

While Verizon Wireless, which is jointly owned by Verizon Communications Inc. and Vodafone, and Sprint both carry femtocells, they haven't loudly advertised the products. They are generally offered to customers threatening to switch or who complain about coverage in their home.

Most carriers are reluctant to talk about coverage problems, even if they do exist, making femtocells a tough product to market to consumers.

Kevin Packingham, senior vice president of product development for Sprint, calls femtocells a retention tool. Sprint's device, called the Airave, costs $100 plus a $5 monthly fee on top of the regular monthly bill.

Mr. Packingham said advertising would ramp up with next-generation femtocells since it will be easier to promote the additional data services that can run off of the device, rather than the coverage benefits.

"Looking down the road, in several years, I think everyone will have one," said Mr. Packingham.

Verizon Wireless began offering its first femtocell, which it refers to as a Network Extender, earlier this year. A spokesman says the Samsung device, which costs $250, is "finding its audience."

While the companies haven't made sales numbers available, ABI Research analyst Aditya Kaul estimates 100,000 femtocell units were sold world-wide last year and 790,000 units will be sold this year.

"I think there is a lot of promise, but we'll have to wait a year or two before the mass market femtocell takes off," he said.

AT&T is testing the devices in three cities, a spokesman says, declining to mention the locations. He declined to say when they would be broadly available or how much they would cost.

"By the end of the year, most of the big operators will be out and about," said Chris Gilbert, chief executive of U.K. femtocell manufacturer Ubiquisys Ltd.

The first wave of devices offered by Verizon Wireless and Sprint are mostly designed to boost voice reception, since they run off of second-generation, or 2G, technology.

Samsung is planning to launch a 3G-compatible femtocell early next year. The device will allow the carriers to offer more wireless services and programs to consumers through the speedier connection.

Ubiquisys, meanwhile, already has its 3G devices in Japan and in Europe.

Источник: Total Telecom

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