How can I get a residential small cell (femtocell) and other common questions

Buy Femtocell on Internet Perhaps the industry has over-cooked the marketing hype, but we’ve seen growing interest on the internet from end-users wanting to buy their own residential small cell (previously named a femtocell). Here are some quick answers to common questions.

As we’ve said several times, the business case is particularly strong in North America, where the combination of poor mobile phone coverage and widely available domestic broadband service (plus the disposable income to pay) provide early market demand. We’d also expect strong early takeup in Japan which quickly adopts new technologies.

Where can I buy a residential small cell/femtocell?

Residential small cells (Femtocells) are today commercially available in many countries, across USA, Europe and Asia. It is expected that a few more may introduce the system in due course.

Each operator tends to market the product with their own distinctive brand name, and doesn't use the term femtocell or small cell in their marketing literature. Examples include Vodafone Sure Signal, Sprint Airave and AT&T 3G Microcell.

A list of current residential small cell (femtocell) network operators and links to their websites can be found here.

Who can I buy a residential small cell/femtocell from?

The femtocell equipment has to be managed by a licenced mobile phone operator, using the frequency spectrum that it paid (usually huge sums to) its government for. This differs radically from WiFi access points, which use unlicenced spectrum and can be setup pretty much anywhere.

Therefore, in order to work with your mobile phone, you will have to buy the femtocell from your mobile operator or a reseller.

Where can I use my residential small cell/femtocell – can I take it to my country/holiday home at weekends?

In the US, all small cells are required to include a GPS receiver. This serves three purposes:

  • Provide an accurate clock timing frequency reference (GPS is calibrated from Caesium atomic clocks), thus ensuring calls handover to/from the external cellphone network easily and don’t disrupt users nearby.

  • Determine which frequencies are licenced for use in the area, and use the correct ones.

  • Block usage outside licenced operating areas.

Additionally, small cells often have a 2G and 3G receiver which can scan for signals from external cellsites and determine the country and available networks. It can use this to identify if it has been moved since last used, because the local cellsite identities would have changed.

Therefore, taking the equipment to a different location in the same country could work, but would be known to the network operator. Some operators have considered charging for this “service”, although they don’t actually have to do anything other than bill for the privilege. Alternatively it could just be allowed.

However, taking the device with you on your travels abroad is much less likely to be successful. If you were in such a remote location that there was no outside mobile service but broadband was, then this would be possible. If its just a business trip to a mainstream hotel, then you would much less likely find this to be the case.

Can I have more than one residential small cell/femtocell at home?

Why not! (but not usually from the same mobile operator) Just as we see multiple cell towers from different operators in close proximity (there are three in the corners of my local football ground), it should be possible to do this in domestic premises. Small cells provided by different mobile phone operators will transmit at different frequencies, so providing there is some spatial separation (ie the units are not stacked directly on top of each other), then this should be feasible.

A limit of 4 or 8 simultaneous calls applies to each residential small cell. Additionally, the limited capacity of the broadband internet connection would be applied across all small cells sharing it. 

Obviously, the phone companies will want (expect) end users to consolidate on a single mobile phone supplier for all family members in a home, sharing the same small cell. They may also be able to provide the broadband service as part of the package (we have seen “free broadband” offers from mobile operators in the UK for higher spending postpaid subscribers already). But there may be cases where users have different phone operators (eg a work phone), and might install a separate small cell in their study area for that purpose.

Small cell vendors also talk about using them in high traffic density office environments, effectively providing many independent cells each capable of handling 4 simultaneous calls. This competes with several other techniques widely deployed today, such as Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS), Remote Radio Heads and picocells. The business case to do this will be based around lower deployment costs, because the femtocells would be pretty much self-installing and self radio optimising.

I’d not expect domestic users to have more than one residential small cell from the same mobile phone network, but I have heard of cases where two have been installed to cover an exceptionally large/spread out residence. This required two independent DSL broadband lines to support them. In some exceptional cases, multiple femtocells may be installed from different operators.

Can I sell my residential small cell/femtocell on eBay when I’m done with it?

Probably. In the UK, Vodafone allow customers to resell their small cells and will reconnect them if sold on. Operators are likely to be quite wary of connecting equipment that they don’t know about into their systems, but where it is a traceable unit with known serial number, then this will be technically possible.

My suspicion is that the cost of small cells in the future will drop to a level where it’s not worthwhile. Subsidised small cells make it more likely that customers will buy the latest, new version.

Where permitted, it’s almost certain to be allowed only between users of the same mobile phone networks. The buyer will need to have checked they can register the residential small cell on their own account before purchasing it.

Can I reuse or transfer my residential small cell/femtocell to another mobile operator?

Standards, standards, standards. One of the great things about mobile phone systems (and particularly the GSM family) is that all equipment must comply with previous agreed specifications. Pretty much any phone sold anywhere in the world can work on any other mobile phone network of the same type – either through roaming or by swapping out the SIM card. Yes, there are a few places where these standards vary (frequencies used in the US differ, Japan didn’t deploy GSM), but this approach has been incredibly successful (87% of the worlds phones are GSM based).

Residential small cells also comply with these standards and so will work with pretty much any mobile phone using the same system. However, there are many different system architectures used to connect them back into the mobile phone operator’s systems. Specifically, the way in which the data connection is used over the broadband internet link varies widely and is often incompatible between different vendors.

Operators would much prefer if residential small cells/femtocells were completely transferable, because it allows them to trade-off purchase decisions between different suppliers and get the best deal. This was tried (and failed) for the GSM system, tried again (and failed) for the 3G UMTS system and is being tried again for LTE. Vendors supply both the small cell and the small cell gateway at the operator’s central site, and this is likely to be the case in the medium term.

Lastly, it may be obvious to the reader, but small cells are not designed and manufactured to work with different 3G radio technologies such as CDMA or UMTS in the same unit. Customers of Sprint or Verizon (which use CDMA) will not be able to use their femtocells on T-Mobile or AT&T Wireless (which use 3G UMTS/HSPA technology). Different hardware parts are required on the RF side, so its unlikely we'll see a dual-mode CDMA/UMTS residential small cell/femtocell in the future.

Want to buy a residential small cell for home or small office use? Read our list of network operators with commercial residential small cell services

Have another question? – email us.

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#1 Dimitris Mavrakis said: 
Apparently Sprint has discontinued sales of its femtocell product with a better product to be offered probably end of this year.

Also, I am not sure whether operators will want to restrict the geographical distribution of femtocells (and place femto gateways/concen trators only for certain areas - I am not sure whether a femtocell access point will be able to connect regardless of its position in the country).
0 Quote 2008-05-08 18:47
#2 Konstantin Shemyak said: 
in order to work with your mobile phone, you will have to buy the femtocell from your mobile operator or a reseller.

This is not true. Femtocells from most vendors, plus femtocell subscriptions from most operators, will allow mobile phones from any operator. The IMSI has to be added to the closed subscriber group, naturally.

In the US, all femtocells are required to include a GPS receiver.

Could you please point to the source of this information?
0 Quote 2008-05-08 18:49
#3 Thinkfemtocell said: 
Thanks for your comments:

@Dimitris: Since the femtocell is connected by broadband IP, the location of the femtocell gateway is relatively unimportant. Technically it can be at any geographic location as long as it has a connection into the network operator's core network. There may be some benefit in co-locating femtocell gateways in the same region to reduce the cost of trunking for calls which actively handover between femtocell and external network (ie using the same MSC), but this is probably not a huge factor, and may not be the case during initial rollout. For example, calls used to be routed via an MSC in Newcastle (in the east coast of England) from Northern Ireland in the early days of GSM in the UK.

This allows operators to buy femtocells from several vendors and distribute them across the country, each will connect to its own "home" gateway from the same vendor if required.

@Konstantin: Although a femtocell product can be used by any operator, just as a phone can be connected to any network, these will be integral and directly connected to a single mobile operator's systems. It will use the licenced frequency, emit the identification of that network and handle calls to/from phones authorised to use that mobile network's services. In most countries, national roaming is not permitted (ie using Vodafone subscription on a T-Mobile network), and phones are configured to ignore non-Vodafone basestations. So whilst roaming subscribers and other phone users from the same network operator may also use your femtocell (subject to either the femtocell being open or their phone listed on the white-list), it isn't technically feasible for a single femtocell to simultaneously support multiple networks.

Regarding the issue of GPS receiver being mandated in the US, I may have heard this at a conference rather than seen it online. It's related to the E911 emergency service requirement. I'm not aware of this being a requirement elsewhere. Samsung's CDMA femtocell (as used by Sprint for their Airave launch) includes one.
0 Quote 2008-05-08 19:02
#4 Murat from Bishkek said: 
Can I have more than one femtocell at home?
..."Why not! (but not from the same mobile operator)..."
This FAQ was written in 2008, is it still true?
0 Quote 2011-04-25 07:03
#5 ThinkFemtocell said: 
@Murat: Don't be misled by the creation date. The article here is still valid. I have heard of one or two people having two femtocells fromt the same operator, but they had some issues around sharing common IP address and had to install two separate broadband lines. In office/business environments, multiple femtocells can be installed for wider area coverage and/or capacity, and these are designed to interwork. Ubiquisys in particular have a demo where femtocells "peer" with each other, and optimise traffic capacity as people move around the building.
0 Quote 2011-04-27 19:03
#6 Andrew said: 
I understand that these devices can provide a Cell service to any cell phone on a 3G network, but can they work over any ISP network?

Here in New Zealand, Vodafone has released a femocell, but say that can only be connected via their internet service. Is this the call for ALL Femocells?
0 Quote 2011-08-29 21:33
#7 ThinkFemtocell said: 
@Andrew: Firstly, let me clarify that femtocells only provide 3G service to customers on the same cellular network - you can't access those from competing network operators. As far as your broadband ISP is concerned, technically they do work over almost any DSL or cable modem provider. However, some network operators such as Vodafone New Zealand require that you connect them through theirs. Unusually, VFNZ have specially configured their DSL broadband so that any femtocell usage doesn't count towards your DSL allowance - I don't know of other network operators who have done so yet.
0 Quote 2011-08-29 21:57
#8 JE said: 
I am workin with a few GSM carriers in Latin America and want to setup a lab at carrier's site to capture all UE traffic with wireshark. We want to plug a PC with wireshark to see exactly all data traffic of test UE to test and develop custom data services. Some apps behave different on Wifi-UE, so need access to unencrypted PS data flow. There is chance Carrier may like the femto for commercial use. Any ideas how to proceed?
0 Quote 2011-10-21 21:57
#9 ThinkFemtocell said: 
@JE: It all depends on your budget and exactly what you are trying to do. There is a lot of test equipment out there which can emulate a basestation, such as from Rhode and Schwarz or Agilent. This may be able to give you the unencrypted trace that you are looking for. If you wanted a GSM femtocell, then you could either buy one and a small network core system. The trouble is that the main vendors, such as ip.access or perhaps Hay Systems Ltd, might not want to do business for a one off/lab sale. An alternative is to look at the OpenBTS open source project, which has built a simple GSM cellsite using low cost hardware and demonstrated it takes calls. I wrote up an article on the site here about it some time ago - google for "build your own opensource femtocell". I don't believe there would be any/much difference between GSM and 3G unencryped data traffic apart from volume and speed.
+1 Quote 2011-10-23 22:01
#10 US said: 
Hi there,
We would like to re-sell Femtocells in Indian Sub- continent. Would we be only required to sell to operators and not individuals. I read it above that one can sell it on ebay as well. But is it possible if we do so, and not bringing the operators in dialogue ?

How does an individual configure the femtocell or is it auto-configurab le ,as a router does? By the way, aren't the features of a Femtocell somewhat similar to a Router connected to the cable operator's network ?
0 Quote 2012-02-27 04:21
#11 ThinkSmallCell said: 
@US: The small cell must be attached to, configured and managed by a network operator with a valid licence. With the launch of 3G in India, where each operator has so little spectrum, it may now be the time for small cells to be used there. You would have to work through or with a network operator to resell the femtocells - you can't do this independently because they would not be activated and go live.
+1 Quote 2012-09-04 15:59
#12 Peter said: 
We are lucky enough to have two homes but slightly unlucky in as far as they both have poor signals on the UK's Three network. Will a femtocell (Three calls them home signal box) in each home work for us? I have been told that one phone can only register with one home signal box. Which would be unfortunate. Does anybody know?
0 Quote 2014-06-10 08:26
#13 ThinkSmallCell said: 
Three's Signal Box should fix your problem. You'll need separate ones for each home, and need to setup each box independently. I can't think of any reason why any 3 mobile can't be registered to access multiple Signal Boxes in different places. However, it may be possible that each subscriber can only manage/administ er one box. (This is conjecture on my part). In which case, having one box in your name and the other in your partner's may be a reasonable workaround.

You would also need to have adequate DSL broadband speed/performan ce, although this doesn't need a lot to support one or two concurrent calls. Let us know how you get on with it!
0 Quote 2014-06-16 13:08
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