Femtocell: free-riding, fair play or a fixer-upper?

Vodafone Sure Signal guarantees you a great 3G signal at home, no matter where you live. Watch the stories of people from around the UK who have been rescued from their mobile signal problems.“, says Vodafone’s Sure Signal marketing website. All you need is a broadband connection which gives you 1 Mbps or more.

A Femtocell gateway is a product that addresses a real and well-articulated, not latent, need. UK’s mobile not-spots are well-known. I live in one and moved to Vodafone when the Femtocell gateway was first launched in July 2009. I paid £60 for it, which was early adopter pricing seeing as Vodafone is now selling it for £50. It is a viable option unless you are so unfortunate that you live in a broadband not-spot too!

Now, thanks to the femtocell, my mobile phone works all the time at home. Routing my voice traffic through my BT Broadband pipe which on most days gives me 7Mbps or thereabouts. If I want, I can use up all of my 500Mb data allowance on the Vodafone contract every month.

Except that most of it – when I am not outside – will really be accessed through my broadband connection so I might as well just use my mobile phone as a Wi-Fi client.

It is a good thing then that my ISP does not ‘meter’ my usage. Because if it did, I hate to imagine how much I’d pay for the ‘privilege’ of routing all my mobile voice calls and some data calls through broadband, while nestling in my not-spot. You see, I pay monthly contract, I paid for the femtocell all so that I can route my calls through my broadband connection for which I am also paying. In other words, for now, femtocell gateways are free-riding. On fast broadband connections and ISPs who do not meter usage.

In my view, femtocells are a temporary end-of-pipe solution to the bigger problem of coverage and capacity in mobile networks, even as smart phone penetration rises, and expectations as well as patterns of mobile usage change.

To fix the current problem and to pre-empt it, someone has to pay, invest big sums of money. If the MNOs don’t invest and push consumer-end solutions, then the ISPs may well decide to charge the consumers. Consumers can then bring complaints to OFCOM. However as service contracts go, a signal at the end of your front yard by the road means the obligation is being fulfilled. So, many of the OFCOM complaints won’t do a jot for the consumer.

This is hardly fair-play. Mobile infrastructures in many countries, not least those booming markets, which haven’t yet granted their 3 licences, are fixer-uppers. They need strategic investment. Soon.

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