Free or Not, Femtocell Deployments Are on the Rise

Deployments of femtocells have doubled in the last six months, indicating that an increasing number of carriers want to supplement wireless coverage in homes using the 3G devices. The market has seen 16 carrier commitments and 13 implementations of femtocells throughout North America, Asia and Europe since November of 2009, according to Informa Telecoms and Media, a mobile communications research firm. It expects the small cellular signal boosters to support 114 million mobile users through sales of 49 million femtocell access points by 2014.

Femtocells help carriers manage their wireless capacity by offloading voice services to a customer’s existing home broadband connection. But the carriers are taking different approaches with femtocell solutions, which can either help or hinder consumer adoption. Here in the U.S., AT&T charges for the small device but reduces the hardware cost if customers agree to an optional $19.99 monthly voice plan. The carrier also counts data usage through the femtocell against limited data plans. In Japan, however, Softbank is providing both the femtocell and a DSL connection to use with the device at no charge. While I don’t know firsthand what Softbank’s coverage map looks like, I suspect a greater percentage of its customers take to femtocells as opposed to those with AT&T, given the no-cost device and service.

The recent growth of femtocell deployments is putting a damper on Unlicensed Mobile Access — or calls placed over Wi-Fi in the home — which disappoints me. Last week, I tested a UMA call on T-Mobile’s new Nokia E73 Mode and it worked flawlessly, mirroring Om’s UMA experiences on his BlackBerry. Unfortunately, carriers can’t guarantee the quality of such voice calls due to potential interference on a customer’s home wireless network, as Simon Saunders, chairman of the Femto Forum, explained to me when we chatted last September for a GigaOM Pro report on femtocells (subscription required). Saunders’ expectations are coming to fruition — for many consumers, femtocells can and will solve the problem of poor voice coverage at home.

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