Corporate Femtocells - A popular choice
Employees of most companies don’t have a choice of which network operator provides their corporate mobile phone service. Typically, the office manager or procurement department will negotiate a deal with one of the national networks to provide service to all employees qualifying for corporate mobile phone service.
Unlike those on a personal contract or pre-paid service, these employees can’t choose their network based on the coverage and service in their own local area.
A new way around this problem is for employees suffering from poor coverage in their home or branch office is to be issued with a femtocell. Sometimes these are provided free of charge to high value customers, others may have to pay for them.
The benefit of crystal clear voice quality and reachability benefit both the business and the employee.
Living or working where a femtocell has been installed, it must be common to want to share the good service with visitors. However, most femtocell service providers restrict access to each femtocell to a known list of mobile phones.
This whitelist is provisioned when the femtocell is installed and can be updated by the owner. For example, Vodafone UK and ATT Wireless provide a self-service webpage through which the owner can add or remove up to 30 phone numbers at will. Updates are typically actioned within a few minutes.
Corporate owned femtocells don't come with individual access
Where a femtocell has been provided through a large business, I understand that individual self-service pages are not currently provided to each user. Updates must be requested manually and can take a day (more at weekends) to be processed.
This effectively results in temporary visitors being unable to use the service, probably resulting in less viral marketing from those who could have tried it out.
Not just an open and shut case
Femtocell vendors will be quick to point out that a closed whitelist is not the only option open to network operators:
- Open access femtocells simply allow any subscriber to use them, just as for any outdoor cellsite. Verizon adopt this policy with their network extender.
- Hybrid access femtocells also allows any subscriber to use them, but gives priority to those on the whitelist.
Closed whitelists are typically used to avoid surprise wireline broadband bills.
I’ve written before about other ways in which whitelists could be updated or expanded automatically. These include uploading your contact list or Facebook phone book.
Another scenario I’ve seen for Wi-Fi service in some public areas is a time limited service – for example the first 15 minutes are free, thereafter users must register and confirm their email address. This would require a more complex feature to be incorporated into the femtocell to allow access to visitors for limited time or data volume.
Opening up femtocells improves service to other users too
A recent research paper from some clever chaps at the University of Texas suggests that visitors who can’t access a femtocell may even receive slightly worse service than if it were not there.
The authors propose a shared access to the airwaves, which rather than allowing visitors access to the femtocell instead ensure that the frequency spectrum is shared more effectively between visitors (on an external macrocell) and local users on the femtocell, reducing the interference and impact between each other.
But just keep it simple
In practice, I think the additional complexity of adding further access limiting features may not be worthwhile. Unlike Wi-Fi access, the user of any femtocell is positively identified by their mobile phone number/account and so can be traced and/or blocked in cases of abuse.
Instead, I’d argue that open access, or perhaps hybrid access, would provide the best service for corporate users.
Perhaps service providers might default to this mode for corporate femtocells and give more of their customer base a chance to taste the improved experience that femtocells provide.
A quick "win-win" for all concerned.