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.

4 thoughts on “Femtocell: free-riding, fair play or a fixer-upper?

  1. Shefaly if you were to try and surf on your Nokia using wifi you’d discover that they battery work burn out faster than a failed X Factor audition! The joy of a femtocell is that the handset battery is not effected by poor in building coverage.

    When it comes to 3G in the emerging markets the issue is a lack of backhaul infrastructure that limits the ability to build out base stations. In some areas the Government has mandated that networks share radio access networks in an effort to manage capacity. Others are looking at solutions that do not require national coverage in an effort to increase data networks using mobile standards. The arrival of LTE might offer a solution and if spectrum is re-farmed then you could see data networks making it to rural areas.

    The issue of radio coverage is difficult and the use of all you can eat pricing makes it difficult to get a return on the investment. When planning for 3G, models did not see the network being used for data services but rather location based entertainment.

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  2. I don’t know why but I always think of the healh aspect. Living near a mobile phone tower has its disadvantages, but then I guess in developed countries they don’t have them in densely populated residential areas. In India we do. Different service providers have different areas where they are stronger. To reduce the health burden I think service providers should pool in money and build infrastructure that they can share. Perhaps this idea does not make business sense.

    @Nita: Thanks for your note. First thing: radiation. Karolinska Institute has done extensive research on the link between mobile phones and radiation exposure. The evidence so far is inconclusive. Further on radiation, in the grand schema of all the radiation we are already subjected to, mobile towers and phones are probably minuscule. Our food and water, our use of computers/ TVs/ smoke alarms, several medical procedures all contribute to our radiation dose. Second: shared infrastructure. Interestingly that is where I believe the MNOs may be headed. If you like, listen to Peter Cochrane on this clip.

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