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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 July 2007, 07:30 GMT 08:30 UK
Home cells signal mobile change
By Jonathan Fildes
Technology reporter, BBC News

Farmer makes mobile call in a field
People will go to extraordinary lengths to find mobile signal
Standing in the corner of the room; being exiled to the bottom of the garden; or teetering precariously on a chair.

People will go to extraordinary lengths to find that elusive one bar of signal that will allow them to make a mobile phone call.

But soon the days of despair that occur when you arrive home only to find your new handset does not get any coverage in your house may be over.

There is a new home technology on the block, known as femtocells, and if the hype is to be believed, it will end signal problems forever.

"People I talk to say 'I want one now'," said Stephen Mallinson, CEO of UK femtocell producer ip.access.

Technology trial

The paperback sized-boxes are essentially compact, personal, mobile phone base stations that plugs straight in to your internet connection.

Make a phone call on your mobile and, instead of routing the call through the network of base stations and masts that cover most of the country, it sends the call over the internet using your broadband connection.

Until now, they have been the preserve of big business, but sometime in the next two years they could come bundled with your mobile phone contract.

Femtocell and phone
Femtocells route mobile calls over the internet

"We always had the vision that the technology would be cheap enough to be in the home," said Mr Mallinson.

The company has just launched a 3G femtocell, targeted directly at home users, which could also bring high-speed mobile broadband into the home.

It is one of several offerings from companies such as Airwalk or Ubiquisys, which recently rose to prominence when search giant Google invested in the firm.

At the same time, large networks operators such as Vodafone and Softel have announced they will trial the technology.

And according to research firm ABI, by 2012 there could be 70 million femtocells installed in homes around the world serving more than 150 million users.

But for the network operators at least, the technology goes beyond just mopping up those people who cannot make phone calls on their network.

"In a sense it's mobile taking on wi-fi," said Mike Roberts, principal analyst at research firm Informa Media and Telecoms.

Call hassle

Femtocells pack high speed 3G technology or High Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) inside, which can have download speeds of up to 7Mbps, similar to many home broadband offerings.

"In developed markets, their [the network operators] business has matured and they're looking for any growth opportunities they can. Taking on fixed broadband is one of those and femtocells are a great weapon to do that," said Mr Roberts.

Stephen Mallinson
The customer is paying for the backhaul
Stephen Mallinson

According to the Oxford Internet Survey, 67% of the UK's population are current internet users and 29% have wi-fi access.

Grabbing an increasing share of this market is attractive to mobile operators, said Mr Roberts, and one way of doing that would be to build HSDPA straight into laptops

"That way you can connect to your femtocell and you can use it everywhere else as well - that's compelling," he said.

But the rise of the femtocell also has other advantages to the mobile networks.

Over the last few years various technologies have converged that threaten to make a dent in mobile operator's profits.

For example, wireless connectivity on handsets along with VoIP allows people to cut the cost of calls by bypassing the mobile phone network.

Companies such as Skype, Jajah and Truphone have all got in on the action.

"VoiP over wi-fi is starting but it's still early days," said Mr Roberts. "It's a real hassle to use and it's nowhere near the quality, reliability or usability of cellular voice."

If mobile operators can get femtocells into the home quickly, then they can prevent the rise of VoIP over home wi-fi.

"It's kind of like the mobile operator empire striking back," said Mr Roberts.

Cheap networks

The cellular networks have so far remained relatively tight-lipped about how they plan to use the technology.

Vodafone have said they are "currently looking at the business case".

Phone mast
By routing calls over the net femtocells free up the main network

"Femtocells are being assessed at a Group level as there may be strategic benefits such as improved 3G indoor coverage and lower costs," the company said.

"Femtocells could also allow us to develop new propositions for customers which could help to stimulate 3G usage still further."

Encouraging customers to sign up for 3G services is key for companies that spent billions on licences to secure the spectrum.

But there may be another advantage to the networks.

"The customer is paying for the backhaul," explained Mr Mallinson.

In a sense, mobile customers would be subsidising the growth of the mobile network by using their own home broadband and crucially, only subsidising growth in those areas where it is needed.

And that might be the first of several difficult sells to customers, according to Mr Roberts.

"If I'm a consumer I will say: 'OK, this is using my broadband line what do I get in return?'," he said.

"And it could be that your mobile calls are free or at landline rates. I think they will definitely have to address that issue with free stuff."

Femtocells could be given away free or even bundled with wi-fi routers to make them more attractive.

Signal strength

But the technology may face an ever bigger challenge before it gains widespread acceptance: its image.

"It's a base station in your home effectively," said Mr Roberts.

"I think mobile operators would certainly not like me calling them that...which is why they came up with the new name: femtocell, said Mr Roberts.

There have been several well publicised campaigns against the building of large scale base stations in residential areas.

Although companies such as ip.access are keen to stress that the technology operates at a much lower power than a standard base station - and well within government guidelines - the association with their larger cousins may be enough to put some people off.

But even so, analysts see a bright future for femtocells.

"We can see them taking off," said Mr Roberts.

And when that happens, the days of people waving their phones in the air to find even a glimmer of signal could be over. At home at least, full signal should be the norm.

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