The state of the femtocell market today can be compared to a scene in an action movie, where the large dam has been blown up, the audience is holding its breath waiting for the enormous wall of water to descend, but only a trickle is so far seen to appear.
ATT recently launched their 3G Microcell to a fanfare of publicity and much buzz around the femtocell industry. With a captive market heavily complaining about poor network coverage in a country with widespread broadband internet presentation, you'd expect this to be a "quick fix" to provide excellent indoor voice/data coverage and relieve pressure on the outdoor macro network.
But in the movie, it seems like only one brick had been displaced and another slow trickle has
Only available in one city
Although ATT Wireless serves all 52 states across the US, the commercial launch of their 3G microcell was limited to one city - Charlotte in North Carolina. About 20 ATT stores in the area are now able to retail the device. The launch is being expanded to Raleigh, a few miles down the road, and a few neighbouring areas during October. Althought announced as a commercial launch, in reality this is just the next stage towards widescale availability
There have been extensive trials of the 3G Microcell for months (if not years), and the long awaited rollout was expected to be slick and smooth. Delays are being attributed to compliance requirements for E911 emergency calls. These must be routed through to the correct Public Safety Answering Point and pass through the accurate location of the caller. The 3G Microcell does include its own GPS receiver, so it knows where it is (although this wouldn't identify which floor in a large apartment building).
Apart from this hiccup, the box does appear to be ready to rollout in volume. There's a nice self-management webpage, where you can register and update details of authorized users for your device.
Various reports from users who have bought and installed the box are very positive. The process seems to run smoothly with initial setup to full operation taking no more than an hour or two.
Andy Tiller (from ip.access) points out some additional features not found in the recent Vodafone Access Gateway launch in the UK, including:
- full automated back office provisioning and configuration management
- GPS based location lock (so you can't move it without the system knowing)
- Handsets display a different network name when using the femtocell
- A router is included to prioritise traffic and ensure excellent voice quality
Some confusion over pricing
I haven't been able to find pricing details on ATT Wireless own website, but drawn them from other reports. There are several options which have raised confusion with potential customers who've throught there is a mandatory ongoing monthly fee. Beware that ATT have been clear to state that these prices may change - they are trialling not just the technology but the pricing options too.
Basic price is a one-off $149. The box is yours, no further ongoing fees. Calls made through it are not discounted or charged in any different way. If you already have enough minutes in your cellphone plans, this may be the most appropriate deal. The only real requirement is that the registered user of the box must be an existing ATT cellphone customer on a contract/plan.
Optional unlimited minutes plan: $50 for the Microcell then $20/month. For an additional monthly fee, calls made through the 3G Microcell to any US landline or cellphone don't count towards your cellphone plan minutes. This fee appears to cover use of your cellphone on other 3G Microcells too, for example if you use one when visiting family, friends or office has one.
To encourage takeup of this option, you also get a $100 rebate on the microcell, effectively reducing its price to $50. I've also seen it reported that new DSL line customers can get the 3G Microcell box for free.
Further discount if you have ATT DSL Broadband and/or landline. Although you may still have to buy the 3G Microcell for $49, existing ATT DSL broadband customers can have the optional unlimited minutes for $10 month instead of $20. If you have a bundled landline, then unlimited calling is free/included.
|Basic Box Only||$149||$0|
|Already on ATT
|Already on ATT
DSL and landline
This is reasonably competitive with other wireless networks - Verizon charge $249 for theirs, Sprint is only $99 but $5/month and optionally $10/month for unlimited calls. What is unique is that the unlimited call package applies when visiting/using other 3G Microcells.
But don't think you can simply invite all your friends round for a femtocell party with free calls - there is a limit of 10 registered users per Microcell.
Cisco - the secret femtocell vendor
The 3G Microcell is clearly and boldly branded with the Cisco logo. But you wouldn't think that they want you to know they are in the femtocell business. I have scoured Cisco website for any technical details about the product and they are the only femtocell vendor I've found who publish absolutely no specification or details about their producton their own site.
My understanding is that the innards of this brightly labeled box are in fact provided by ip.access, one of the leading femtocell industry vendors. Cisco had made a significant (but undisclosed) investment in that company last year which was a pretty strong hint.
Voice quality great, but data performance surprisingly poor
Many iPhone users are frequently complaining about poor voice quality in their area. Data connectivity can be worked around where WiFi is available indoors, but voice calls can be easily missed or difficult to make. So the 5 bar, high quality voice service being reported through the 3G Microcell is excellent.
My own data speed tests on my femtocell, and those by various vendors on their own videos, demonstrate real line speeds in excess of 6Mbit/s. I found that the limit is more likely to be the broadband DSL service or the handset hardware rather than the femtocell itself.
Therefore I was surprised to see Jason (mentioned above) report pretty slow 3G data speeds. He's got plenty of broadband capacity (uVerse delivers 18MBit/s downlink and 1.5Mbit/s uplink), yet a speedtest on his iPhone showed only 1.3Mbit/s down and a puny 56kbit/s up. Something sounds strange here.
One sales rep is reported to state the peak data throughput of the femtocell is 3.2Mbit/s rather than the 7Mbit/s we've seen on other similar products. This has also been reported in other blogs, but without ATT actively stating the specifications of the box we can't be certain.
As a result, Jason has chosen to use 3G Microcell for voice, but leave data traffic on WiFi to get the best of both worlds. I'm guessing this slow rate is down to some issues within ATT Wireless Core Network, which the WiFi traffic wouldn't need to pass through. This is one to watch - a strong driver for femtocells is to offload the data traffic, but not to WiFi.
Christmas time is probably the target market
It had been widely anticipated that ATT would launch their femtocell around Fall 2009. The end of the year is a peak time for cellphone product sales, and this should give enough time for the product to be market proven and their operational systems ready for high volume sales.
The competition isn't standing still either. Sprint is widely expected to launch their 3G femtocell soon, offering high speed data rates which their current 2G femtocell can't achieve and which may match or exceed those from ATT.
We should expect to see a few more bricks removed from the dam in the coming weeks, after which volumes are likely to grow to a deluge.