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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  • A beautiful mind - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    My Nokia N900 already uses the home/office wifi connection to access the internet, with the possibility to receive/make calls from/to skype.

    There is absolutely no extra functionality that is provided by the femtocell approach.
    Reply
  • softdrinkviking - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    For you and me, this is true.
    But not for everyone.

    That's the really sad thing about this device. It's designed as a way to nickel and dime poor souls whose homes are in a dead zone and absolutely have to answer their phone for business.

    Reply
  • nafhan - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    Great article, and you did an excellent job of diving into the tech behind the femtocell.

    An interesting follow up to this article might be to see what kind of results you get from purchasing an antenna and repeater. I've seen antenna/repeater setups online in the $350 and up range, and wondered how they would do. If they work OK, it might be a viable alternative, especially for people without good internet connections.
    Reply
  • gwolfman - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    Where is the print article feature on the new site? Reply
  • Maroon - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    They've been sneaking these things in Apple stores. No wonder the iPhone feelgood only lasts untill you get out of the store and have to rely on the "standard" AT&T network. LOL.

    Reply
  • soccerharms - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    Are you kiddin' me? I am going to approach this from two angles. The first being that this article is completely fake. ITS APRIL 1st people! The tech community should have an uproar for such a device. We buy internet and it is usually our responsibility to distribute it around the house with a router for wireless and whatnot. HOWEVER, we do not buy a wireless......phone plan with the intention on increasing a carriers crappy signal in our own house out of our pocket. That's ludacris! There is another much cheaper solution...........its called a LAN line with a cordless phone HA!

    The only company that could profit from a device like this would be Apple. But they would have to make it a little more shiney and put that quarter eaten logo on the side :)

    Let the battles begin....
    Reply
  • Jaybus - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    This is like buying an airline ticket only to find there is no flight. Since they don't have a flight, the airline offers to sell you your own airplane. You have to provide your own pilot, fuel, and maintenance, but you still have to pay them the full price for a ticket whenever you fly your own airplane. So my idea is to start a car rental business that has no cars. Anyone willing to pay AT&T for a microcell that uses their own Internet connection would surely be willing to pay me a rental fee for driving their own car. Reply
  • HotFoot - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    Eh... much of this market is iPhone users - people already willing to accept the concept of ecosystem lock-in. By a similar analogy to your car rental company, they're already willing to buy a car from a company that requires that they drive only on roads built or approved by that company, buy gas only at that company's stations, and buy car insurance from that company.

    Why not charge them for the roadside delivery of a jerry can of gas when the customer finds out the station filled their tank with water instead of fuel?
    Reply
  • yacoub - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    I give it a year or two before the first cancer danger report comes out. ;) Reply
  • loydcase - Thursday, April 01, 2010 - link

    AT&T cell reception at my house is weak in spots. OTOH, if a femtocell allows me to rip out my landlines, it might be worth it. So I'd like to know if a femtocell would be viable for that purpose. Reply

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