Femtocells: I’m Not Paying For Your Infrastructure.

I spent the vast majority of my life living out in the country where mobile phone reception was scarce even when you were on the top of the highest hill you could find. For many years I stayed with Telstra because they were the only ones that could provide me with a connection that wouldn’t drop out most of the time and, thanks to my employment at a retail establishment that peddled their wares, I was able to get a very decent plan that kept me going until about 2 years ago. After moving into the city I’ve always felt spoiled having mobile phone reception wherever I go and I’m still mildly surprised when I get coverage indoors since the corrugated iron roof we had would kill any signal. I know I’m not the only one who’s had these kinds of issues but since I was at home I had many other ways to contact people, it was more the convience factor for those few who didn’t have IM or email.

The problem hasn’t gone away for my rural comrades who still languish with poor cell phone reception. Since the population is spread out so sparsely it’s not worth any mobile provider’s time and money to try and improve the signal out there as their potential customer base is quite small. It’s the same reason that they haven’t bothered with upgrading many rural exchanges with the DSLAM architecture required to give the same people broadband although there are other companies providing directional wireless broadband solutions to cover these guys off (that’s not the same as 3G broadband, just in case you were thinking that). The solution that companies overseas seem to be peddling to those who don’t get the mobile reception that they want seems to lie with the introduction of Femtocells, but I can’t really see how that fixes anything, nor why anyone would actually pay for the privilege.

A femtocell is basically a small version of those giant cell towers you see every so often. They work off the idea that they can route the voice and data traffic over a broadband connection, usually provided by the person who has purchased the femtocell. From a technical point of view it’s actually quite a simple and elegant solution as it makes use of existing infrastructure to provide a service that some people potentially lack. When deployed into the real world however there’s some issues that I just can’t see a simple solution for, especially when you consider those in a situation similar to mine all those years ago.

Firstly there’s the dependency on a broadband connection. Now whilst I’m not terribly familiar with the broadband situation in the USA here in Australia if you’re lucky enough to be able to get any kind of broadband the chances are you’re within a certain short distance from a telephone exchange which typically has its own cell tower. If you’re unable to get cell phone reception but you have connected broadband you’re either inside a building (which usually only kills 3G) or in some kind of freakish blackspot. Either way you’re still connected to the outside world via the Internet and possibly a landline or VOIP phone which could be your mobile phone if it’s capable of running Skype or similar. Additionally for those of us who lived with little to no mobile reception and lack proper broadband a femtocell is useless, since it simply can’t operate in those conditions.

There’s also the fact that, should Australian mobile carriers follow the USA’s lead, femtocells will have to be purchased by the end user. Now it’s always nice to have full bars on your phone but realistically if you’re at home there’s not really a need for it. The data aspect is fully covered by having wifi in the house which even the cheapest of ADSL routers come with these days. I can understand the voice aspect somewhat although if you have broadband in Australia you either have a landline which you can divert your mobile to when you’re out of range of a tower or you have naked DSL and VOIP, which could be used in much the same way. Additionally if you’ve got a smartphone there’s the possibility of using something like Skype which would still be contactable via the Internet should you lose signal at home. Really the mobile carriers should provide the customer with an outdoor picocell instead as coverage blackspots like that tend not to be isolated to a single household.

I guess I’m approaching this problem from the view of someone technically inclined as I can see the attraction for someone who’s stuck in a blackspot and doesn’t want to mess around with diverts and VOIP on their phone. Still the limited application of such devices really makes me think it should be a cost beared by the carrier as realistically it’s their infrastructure that the customer is paying for as even if it was free there’s still the broadband connection, bandwidth and power required for these devices. The problem would be rendered completely moot if a service like Google Voice came to Australia but for now it seems we’re still stuck with less than ideal solutions to poor signal issues in residential areas.

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  1. When I was in Cambodia I spent a while researching mobile network repeaters – basically a local solution to poor (sparse) cell phone signals. You could hoist a high gain antenna onto your roof and provide coverage for your local community. You could repeat signals from impossible distances (something like 100km from memory). The units aren’t cheap, but they would be affordable by a community group buy, or small government grants.
    Since moving to the UK I’ve come to realize how truly vast and impossible Australia is – even compared to the USA. I’m out in the sticks (as much as you can get in the UK) and I’ve been told I can’t get stock standard 20mbit broadband. And unfortunately I also can’t get premium package 50mbit broadband – Unfortunately I’m stuck with either 700kbit 3g, or 6mbit broadband…. I like 7 miles from a city the size of Canberra, and its considered being in the sticks…
    Through every broadband debate in Australia I’ve always thought it was completely unrealistic for anyone to expect rural coverage. People make the choice to live in the countryside and presumably accept the trade-offs. The trade off for me is having to drive 2 miles for a bottle of milk… (I can’t really complain….)
    Cattle don’t need broadband 🙂

  2. Very true, living out in the sticks is a choice and you get whatever the communications providers are willing to give you. Still the femtocells seem to be rolled out as the solution to coverage issues when really they’re just a solution to a small subset of users, not to the wider issue of delivering better mobile services to anyone who’s willing to shell out the cash.

    That might all be set to change with the NBN being rolled out across Australia though as everyone who doesn’t get FTTH will get some kind of 2 way satellite. Femtocells could then become more viable in these remote locations but they’d still be a somewhat niche application. That won’t stop them from being useful and profitable though. 🙂

     

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