Oh Optus, Femtocells Aren’t The Answer.

Look I can understand how frustrating it can be to live in a place with crap cell phone reception. I spent the majority of my life living only 30 minutes outside Canberra and even that short distance was enough for the reception to basically drop off to nothing unless you were with Telstra. Even then you were lucky to be able to place a call indoors (especially if you had the typical colourbond roof) with most mobile calls being made from the nearest hill you could scurry up. I still suffer from spotty coverage even in town thanks to my current network provider but not once have I thought that a femtocell would be the answer to my problem.

Like I’ve said previously femtocells seem to be like a cash grab from cellular providers who instead should be spending their own money on fixing their coverage problems. Their use case is almost too narrow to be of any use since you need to have a broadband connection (which usually puts you in mobile phone range) and since nearly every broadband router comes with a wireless access point there’s no need to use 3G when you’re at home. In essence you’re just giving yourself full coverage so you can pay the exorbitant cellular data rates whilst at the same time using your own data cap, in essence double charging yourself for the privilege. Just like there doesn’t seem to be a case for a cellular tablet I struggle to find a use for a femtocell other than for a cellular provider to bilk their customers.

It seems that these useless devices have finally made their way onto Australian shores with Optus, the carrier with the worst record for coverage (in my experience at least), beginning trials of the devices:

Dubbed the ‘3G Home Zone’, the new Optus femtocell device is a small base station that plugs into a wireless router and uses a fixed-line broadband Internet connection to boost mobile coverage. Once operational, the Optus femtocell device should typically provide full mobile coverage within a 30 metre range.

Optus recommends that the 3G Home Zone be connected to a broadband service with a minimum download speed of 1Mbps and a minimum upload speed of 256kbps — if the speed is capped at 128kbps or lower, the device will no longer work.

The most insulting part about Optus’ introduction of these devices is that they’re charging for them, and it’s not a trivial amount either. You either pony up $60 initially and another $60 over 12 months (with a $70/month plan) or you pay $240 outright. Now far be it from me to get in the way of a company trying to make a profit but it would seem that the investment they spent in getting these devices functional could have been far better spent upgrading the spots where reception is a problem. Getting 3G indoors is all well and good but the vast majority of use cases for that are already covered off aptly by wireless, and you don’t need to pay an additional monthly fee to use that.

What I would support however would be something along the lines of what AT&T is doing in the USA, giving all users who request it a free femtocell. Of course it would seem like a silly move to begin with but having been an actual AT&T customer and seeing the coverage problems they had a free femtocell would go a long way to keeping people on their network. Of course they didn’t start out free (they definitely weren’t when I was there) but obviously the cost can’t be too high or they wouldn’t be offering it. Hopefully it won’t be too long before Optus follows suit.

Femtocells feel like a solution in search of a problem. Sure it might be great to have full coverage in your house (I currently get 1 bar) but the reason for doing so seems almost non-nonsensical when you look at the requirements needed to do it. I can’t see a future where I’ll ever need a device like this unless they somehow make it affordable with a satellite connection, but even then if I’m that far away from humanity I’d be guessing I wouldn’t want to bring the Internet with me. So hopefully these silly devices will disappear into the dark niche they belong in: the technically ignorant and woefully misinformed.

2 Comments

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  1. Optus will supply their femtocells for free (mine just arrived today).

    Basically, we need it because we cannot make phone calls within our house. Our reception is so spotty that _anything_ would be better.

    Yes, it uses our ADSL, but it means that people who are trying to ring us will actually be able to, when we are at home.

    (Assuming the bloody thing ever finishes settings itself up…)

  2. Do they still have the monthly plan attached to them? That was the crux of my argument as making customers pay for them when it’s fixing something that’s really Optus’ problem felt a little bit rich to me. If they’re giving them away gratis now then that’s a good move and something I had hoped they’d eventually do.

    Ever considered switching providers? Back when I wrote this I was on 3 which had shoddy reception nearly everywhere but switching to Telstra has vastly improved my experience. I can understand that’s not a solution for everyone but Telstra really does have some serious bragging rights when it comes to mobile coverage.

    Back when I wrote this I was in the mindset that you’d either have a landline or be able to switch to some form of VOIP client. Whilst the former is no longer guaranteed thanks to the prevalence of naked connections the VOIP forwarding option is still there. Would that be workable for you? I haven’t tried it personally but once something like Google Voice becomes available I may very well do so.

    Would be interested to hear your experiences with the femtocell as a lot has changed since I wrote this almost 2 years ago.

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