Dropped Calls? Femtocells Can Fix It. If Only...

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.