Dropped Calls? Femtocells Can Fix It. If Only…

| Just a Thought

Imagine a scenario where you can make calls on your cell phone and you never expect it to drop. No matter where you go, unless it’s so far from civilization that long distance communication is done by pony express, you get a strong, clear signal and calls always go through. Imagine 3G data rates that are always the fastest they can be and you never go to EDGE.

This scenario is not the stuff of SciFi or a drug induced daydream, it’s a real possibility. In fact we are so close to that possibility that spitting in the right wind could bring this dream to fruition, or not.

The technology that can bring that scene to life is called femtocell, technology that’s been around for years (YEARS!), and our illustrious cell service providers are only recently making it available. (Sprint debuted its Airave femtocell offering late 2007, Verizon’s offering appeared this month. AT&T is still “testing” their femtocell offering in trial markets and should make it widely available sometime in 2010.)

What’s the hold up, given that there’s a rather loud chorus of unhappy smartphone users complaining about poor cell service? The answer’s easy: greed.

Before we go further I should explain what a femtocell is. Think of a device that will route your cellphone calls through your home’s wired Internet connection. How it does it doesn’t matter, just think of it as your very own home cellphone tower. Plug one of these babies in and your cellphone signal is the best it can possibly be, and because you are using your wired Internet access to route the calls it’s reliable and fast. The femotcell works like a regular cell tower, it hands off or acquires active calls to and from other towers, so you never miss a beat.

Note: During this year CES the folks behind MagicJack, the ultra-cheap phone service, introduced a version of femtocell technology that they plan to offer to the public later this year for US$49. However, there is a lot of controversy surrounding magicJack’s offering.

I know, you want one, right? Read on, maybe you won’t.

See, upgrading cell towers and the associated networks can cost a lot of money and the return on the investment can be dicey. Some areas require more or more expensive towers, but the users in those areas may not pay the premium for that service, so cell companies have no real incentive, other than customer complaints, to upgrade.

Enter femtocells. Using femtocells relieves loading on cell towers, which, in turn removes the pressure on the cellphone service provider to upgrade their cell networks. If users in areas with poor service used femtocells then at least the cell service in around the user’s home would be good and there would be less loading on existing towers so everyone, even non-femtocell users would benefit.

Happy customers equal more money and everyone is satisfied.

The problem is the cellphone companies are trying to figure out how to squeeze more money out of their customers instead of trying to find a way to make everyone happy. Like so many businesses today they seem fixated on the short term bottom line. For instance, Verizon’s Network Extender femtocell offering will set you back $250. That’s not so bad, what is bad is that it will not accept incoming calls through the femtocell, and any calls made using the device gets subtracted from your minutes. Where’s the benefit to the customer?

AT&T’s offering is only available in a few areas, but their setup is a bit more reasonable. You can send and receive calls and get unlimited call time when using their MicroCell offering. There is no solid pricing info at the moment, but in the “trial” markets AT&T hits you for $150 for the device and an extra $10 to $20 a month to use it.

Why do we need to pay an extra monthly fee at all? We pay a premium for cell service, pay for broadband, pay for all these other “features” that should be part of bill anyway, and using a femtocell device helps the carrier. Right?

That last point may be moot because a handful of femtocell users are not going to alleviate AT&T’s generally poor service or help any other cell company deliver generally better service. It makes things better for the device user in one location, but that’s it.

Well, cellphone companies, try this: For now, forget home femtocell users. It would take a lot of them to make any appreciable dent in any cell tower loading issue, and all you’ll wind up doing is pissing people off.

Instead target places and business where people gather. I’m talking about malls, stadiums, amusement parks, office buildings, anyplace where people, therefore cellphones are concentrated.

Offer these business incentives to host a femtocell, something larger than a home unit, but smaller than what you’ve got hanging off your towers. The incentive could be tied to providing more internet bandwidth in support of the femtocell. The business would be happy to get more bandwidth at a lower cost and you’d get the bandwidth needed to support your femtocell installation. You could also offer incentives to bring the businesses’ employees into your fold. The femtocell would guarantee great cell service over competitors, and you’d get more paying customers, customers who would likely be more loyal since their equipment would work great where they spend most of their day.

Next, advertise. Let people know that the mall, office, or coffee shop is supported by your femtocell technology. Create a nice eye-catching logo that can be stuck in entrances so that people know that when they enter that establishment their cell service will be stellar. The more logos people see the better their cellphone experience will be and the less loading there will be on towers, which will, in turn, make your system better for all your customers. Like I said, happy customers equal more money.

Finally, after people are use to seeing and using femtocell technology, offer it for home use. By then people will have seen how the technology improves the use of cellphones and will have a better understanding of what’s involved and they’ll want it in their home. Make sure that people know that when they are on a femtocell system their minute ARE NOT used. When in the presence of a competitors system default to the cell tower or offer a choice to use the competition’s network, for a fee.

All of that shouldn’t take more than a year, and it that time you’ll increase customer satisfaction, reduce loading on your overburdened cell towers, kept equipment upgrade down by applying upgrades only to places where needed, and introduced a new technology that could expand Internet usage dramatically.

In the end you would have happy customers and you would have, to lift a phrase from Whiz and Ice of In Living Color fame, mo’ money, mo’ money, mo’ money!

If only you cellphone companies saw things my way.

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The whole business concept of femptocells is fatally flawed.  Its the wrong solution to the problem of poor cellular service in areas that have WiFi connectivity.  The right solution is to enable the iPhone to use WiFi directly for cellular calls.  No new product or service necessary.  Instead, AT&T prevents customers from the obvious solution and dreams up a new product line to generate more revenue.  This strategy will anger and lose AT&T customers in the long term.


Agreed with Domsin, but that is for iPhone customers. Most (not all) of AT&T’s phones don’t have WiFi built in, so femtocells will serve more customers.

The whole Google Voice fiasco is all about AT&T loosing the minutes (and thus revenue). I’d like to see the WiFi connection Domsin proposes, but allow AT&T to charge a small monthly fee (like on femtocells) or bleed down my minutes.

I’d be happy to pay a little for flawless coverage in my house (I’d drop my landline which would counter the cost from AT&T).

Chris S

I have an AT&T microcell in Savannah, Georgia. $150 to purchase at local AT&T store with NO monthly charges. Works great!


The problem I see if any cell providers try to charge monthly for using the femtocell you have just purchased is that you have to pay the cell provider for you using the internet connection you are paying for. Not costing them a cent, and yet you still pay them when they are using your connection. I don’t think so.


A few years ago I used T-Mobile as my cell phone provider. They offered special phones that could make and receive calls on WiFi. The great thing was that a call on the WiFi or started on WiFi and switched to regular cell service did not count against your minutes. Of course a call started on cell and switched to WiFi continued to run down your minutes. The service worked well in some locations where I had base stations and very poorly in others. The charge was $10-30 per month - don’t remember. My greatest unhappiness was the poor quality of the two or three phones that worked on the service. I later discontinued T-Mobile because a local tower went down and they refused to acknowledge it for 3 weeks and then wouldn’t repair it. I decided time to switch to the iPhone.

In the end, it was a good idea. I wouldn’t mind purchasing a femtocell. However, I would like to see it built into my Airport or Cable Modem - I would rather not see a separate box. I see two potential options for charges from AT&T. The first is no charge other than the initial cost (from Apple in a new Airport or AT&T for separate box) but it does count against my minutes as any other call would. The other option is a small monthly fee - say $10 or $20, but it does not count against my minutes. Perhaps they could offer both. I do not know which I would prefer - have to think about it.


Monthly fee is bogus, because I don’t want to pay another cent for my already expensive iPhone cell phone coverage.  But I don’t mind it using my minutes, since most of them fall in some “unlimited” category and the rest don’t come close to using all my minutes.

I really like Vern’s plan, though.  I thought that was the obvious thing to do (put them in high concentration places) as soon as I read what femtocell is. 

I’m rather skeptical that these big cell companies will do things right, but I can always hope.

km in nyc

Your statement about the Verizon femtocell not accepting incoming calls is completely false. I’ve had it since the release in the middle of last year and other than taking about 20-30 minutes the first time finding the GPS signal, I’ve been making and receiving calls on my cellphone without issue over my slow DSL internet connection.

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