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What are Femtocells?

Femtocells are fully featured but very low power mobile phone basestations, connected using standard broadband DSL or Cable service into the mobile operator's network. They offer excellent mobile phone coverage at home for both voice and data, but at lower cost than outdoor service.

The femtocells themselves look very much like WiFi broadband modems, and some vendors are planning to incorporate all three features into a single box (WiFi, DSL and Mobile).

Unlike WiFi, these devices use licenced radio spectrum, so must be operated and controlled by a mobile phone company. Thus it will work with only one mobile phone operator, and thus encourages all users in a household to switch to the same network operator.

When in range of the femtocell at home, the mobile phone will automatically detect it and use it in preference to the outdoor cellsites. Calls are made and received in exactly the same way as before, except that the signals are sent encrypted from the femtocell via the broadband IP network to one of the mobile operators main switching centres. Making and receiving calls uses the same procedures and telephone numbers, and all the standard features (call divert, text messaging, web browsing) are available in the same way - indeed data services should operate more quickly and efficiently due to the short range involved.

Femtocells operate at very low radio power levels - less than cordless phones, WiFi or many other household equipment. This substantially increases the battery life, both on standby and talktime. Units can handle up to 3 or 4 simultaneous calls from different users depending on the model.

They are compatible with existing standard mobile phones, although in future some minor enhancements would allow clear indication of when the phone is using the local femtocell (and thus using a free call allowance) - currently this can be provided by tones at the start of each call.


Sanjeev Verma of Airvana show off their femtocell and discusses the change in ecosystem towards mobile broadband in the home.

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