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.
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.