AT&T's Femtocell

If you're already familiar with the femtocell offerings from Sprint and Verizon, you'll find the AT&T MicroCell is much the same. It's the same premise - calls and data from phones you specify are routed over your own internet connection. Except for one small distinction - AT&T's offers 3G HSPA/UMTS data up to 3.6 Mbits/s alongside voice, where the Sprint Airave and Verizon Network Extender offer 2.5G 1xRTT CDMA2000 data at 144 Kbits/s alongside voice. Of course, that means for the AT&T MicroCell to be useful, you'll need a 3G phone; the older GSM/EDGE only iPhone 2G won't see any benefit from AT&T's femtocell. 
 
It's interesting to note that virtually all of the major carriers in the USA now offer femtocells or similar means of expanding coverage. T-Mobile is the notable exception, which foregos a femtocell in favor of Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA) - a 3GPP standard that allows the same cellular data to be sent over any IP network, most commonly over WiFi. Let's compare the offerings from all the major providers:
 
Carrier AT&T Verizon Sprint T-Mobile
Solution Femtocell - "3G MicroCell" Femtocell - "Network Extender" Femtocell - "Airave" UMA - "HotSpot@Home"
Branding Cisco Samsung Samsung NA
Technology 3G UMTS/HSPA for voice and data 2.5G CDMA 2000 1xRTT 2.5G CDMA 2000 1xRTT UMA voice over WiFi
Simultaneous Calls 4 Simultaneous 3 Simultaneous 3 Simultaneous NA
Standby Approved Callers 10 100 50 NA
Data Bitrate 3.6 megabits/s (HSDPA 3.6) 144 kilobits/s 144 kilobits/s NA
GPS Fix Required Yes Yes Yes NA
Upfront Cost $150.00 or $50 with $100 rebate and $20/month unlimited calling plan $249.99 $99.99 Wireless AP Cost
Hand-On/Hand-Off No/Yes No/Yes No/Yes Inter AP Handover/Yes
Coverage 5000 square feet 5000 square feet 5000 square feet WiFi AP range
Add Ons

$20/month unlimited calling

$10/month with AT&T DSL

$0 with AT&T landline

None

$5/month required 

$10/month unlimited calling - 1 line

$20/month unlimited calling - multi line

$10/month unlimited calling
 
While Sprint and Verizon are offering virtually the same Samsung-branded product, AT&T's MicroCell is a new femtocell bearing dominant Cisco branding. The same caveats apply here: the device needs to be able to get GPS fix, meaning you'll likely have to install it near a window or in the corner of your house. Also, the hardware supports handovers from the femtocell back to the main cellular network, but calls initiated outside of femtocell coverage can never migrate or hand-on to the femtocell. Range is advertised as being 5000 square feet, and the hardware is portable; you can take it on trips or to different places so long as you register the location online. You can also sell the device to someone else - it isn't forever locked to one AT&T account. AT&T stipulates that a 1.5 Mbps downstream, 256 Kbps upstream internet connection is required.
Recap: What's a Femtocell? Unboxing a Cell Tower
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  • atiller - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    Thanks for the excellent and detailed report. One comment - your view of picocells is rather out of date. Just like femtocells, today's picocells use IP backhaul and can be installed without any specialist skills. Some people call them 'enterprise femtocells', but they have a larger capacity and range than a femto. Reply
  • Brian Klug - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    Awesome tip, thanks, I definitely didn't know about these. Do you know what kind of carrier interaction is required for installing one of those? I mean, are they carrier agnostic, some common brand, and can anyone just buy them?

    I think there's definitely a market for malls and large shopping centers that want to improve coverage indoors - it seems to be a systemic problems for large buildings with high population density inside.

    -Brian Klug
    Reply
  • Paulman - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    Except that I was reading an 4/1/2010 post on a friend's blog which made me wonder when the tech sites would start posting their crazy stories, and then I realized... wait a second...

    Before realizing this, I had read up to page 4 (Inside the Networking), at which point I was like, "I'm done with this article - I was just really curious to see if this was a 3G signal repeater, or if it got the data through a broadband connection and then just broadcast it locally over 3G". Lol.
    Reply
  • TGressus - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    ...by failed handovers on AT&T.

    In southern California we as a community drive a lot (serious understatement), and many careers involve driving throughout the work day. Certain devices and occupations have moved my colleagues and family to AT&T at times, including the present. Everyone I know is regularly affected by the worst case handover scenarios you were surprised about in your article.

    It so predominant that I estimate 1/4 of my calls with AT&T I answer, "sorry, dropped call" rather than, "hello". It is the consensus of the mobile professionals with whom I interact through AT&T that one can not afford to make important phone calls on the road. I know that must seem like the most obvious statement ever, but try and empathize here; the nature of many businesses in massive urban sprawl lends itself to perpetual mobile telephony.

    People regularly attribute these issues to the coverage maps and, more recently, smart-phone burden. I'm no cellular techncian, but I suspect it's something more fundamental with GSM and/or AT&T technology. I'm not surprised you noticed this issue. In fact, I'm surprised you are surprised.
    Reply
  • Brian Klug - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    I can't speak for the load in that area, but migrating calls and handing them over if the adjacent cell sites are overloaded is generally what causes soft handovers to fail. So imagine that you're on a node, being serviced perfectly fine, but migrate (while driving, say) into an adjacent cell that's completely overtaxed. The phone will try to migrate its session, but if it's so overloaded that it can't, the call will fail.

    It's a sad state of things, but that's probably what's going on if you see that you have good signal but still encounter problems. In fact, I'd say if you don't hear distortion or blocking, but rather just have the call fail (and you're moving) this is probably the case. Of course, that market is one that AT&T is particularly stressed about and focusing on now, hopefully it improves.

    Both CDMA2000, GSM, and UMTS are equally robust in the soft handover arena, and it *usually* works flawlessly - this is a technology that's rolled out pretty much everywhere. The technology is robust, but it's entirely carriers prerogative to install it properly and watch out for these load issues. Nothing is going to overcome the laws of physics. ;)

    Cheers,
    Brian Klug
    Reply
  • slyck - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    Comments so far are right on. This should be a choice of last resort only for those who are connected to their cell number. If you need internet to make your call there is always VOIP which costs far, far less. Reply
  • sxr7171 - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    Firstly pardon my language here. But this is bullshit.

    These stupid wireless carriers have a lot of nerve trying to extend their wireless coverage off of the customer's dime. On top of the ridiculous prices they charge for voice and data and most importantly: SMS. They have a lot of nerve asking customers to pay for the device and to pay for calls on it.

    The only advantage this has over a VOIP solution is basically seamless hand-offs - WHICH THIS CRAP PRODUCT DOES NOT DO.

    For GSM users this functionality was built into the standard and has been around for years and was mentioned in the article: SIP. T-mobile uses it but they restrict the devices.

    SIP is a feature built into many open unlocked phones like Symbian phones from Nokia and others, but our US carriers don't like such open phones so they would never allow a carrier sponsored phone to have the SIP software intact in the FW/OS. The whole technology was designed around having a choice of cell phone provider and SIP provider - you know choice as in the kind that creates competition. But our carriers will never allow that, and our consumers will always get sucked into carrier contracts and locked phones. This sort of thing is what makes it impossible to launch a phone or technology without the carrier's blessing and it is what makes us indentured to carriers.

    That iPhone is not $200 always remember the $1680 of overpriced service that is part of it. An unlocked iPhone costs $999. Think about why that is. It's because with the carriers control the device prices since they control who can buy it and what services must be purchased and how much that service costs. Will wireless ever be a free market in the US?
    Reply
  • HotFoot - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    Have to agree with you. This is just silly.

    Where I live, there are two good solutions for the problem this device/service is trying to solve.

    1) Rogers has wifi capable cell phones that will switch to using your home 802.11 (or other hotspots) for making calls. When you're on wifi with these phones, you get different rates for calls much more in line with VoIP.

    2) Smart phone that will Skype over wifi. I pay $15/mo for my cell phone service plus another $3 to Skype for unlimited calling in North America. That's $18/mo, no contracts. I did pay $600 for my N900, so if that lasts me 3 years add another $18/mo to the total so I pay $36/mo to have basic cell phone service while I'm out and about and unlimited calling while at home, work, or coffee shop/anywhere there's free wifi.

    Anyone feeling like this AT&T offer is a load of steaming crap in comparison?
    Reply
  • sxr7171 - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    But the 2 are open technologies that were supposed to enable seamless hand-offs and choice of service provider. Reply
  • Wayne86 - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    I was hoping this article was an April Fools joke. Alas, after Topekaing, it is not. :) Reply

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