Can Femtocells be given away for free?
In another reaction to AT&T’s Femotocell product called “MicroCell”, Stephen Shankland at CNET proposed that AT&T give away femtocells to consumers. [UPDATE - If you want to learn more about AT&T's femtocell, Anandtech has this awesome detailed article on it].
Unlike some of the more irrational demands that Femtocells should be free, Shankland actually makes a fairly reasonable case for free femotocells. Shankland is basically suggesting that AT&T uses these residential femotocells to not only cover the home that the femtocell resides in, but also your neighbor’s homes. Then in exchange for sharing your broadband bandwidth to serve as a miniature cell tower backhaul, AT&T would give you the femtocell for free instead of charging you $150 for it.
I think in principle, Shankland has the right idea. In practice however, I don’t think this specific solution is workable.
- The first problem is that these femtocells can be had for as little as $50 with the right rebate, so sharing out your bandwidth for other 3G voice and data users indefinitely seems like a raw deal. Even at $150, it doesn’t seem worthwhile.
- Everyone will wait for their neighbor to volunteer to the be the generous femtocell hotspot because why would anyone want to give up broadband capacity?
- The other problem is quality control because a home user that fires up BitTorrent is going to experience severe jitter problems on the order of 200 to 1000 milliseconds. No wireless provider can deploy a product that depends on a residential broadband connection that may or may not be congested.
- The coverage area of a femtocell sitting inside a home with signal-absorbing walls will be questionable and the power level of the femtocell will be very weak to begin with. Then the signal has to penetrate another wall in the neighbor’s home making it very unreliable. If we boost the power levels, many people will become irrational and think that the “radiation” level is too high and many people will have reservations about running a mini cell tower inside their homes.
I think Shankland’s idea might work some of the following adjustments.
- Wireless carrier will not only offer the free femtocell, but they’ll also provide a free wireless phone line as well as a free broadband connection.
- Broadband connection would need a minimum of 2 Mbps upstream and 10 Mbps downstream prioritized to the femtocell service in both the upstream and downstream to ensure 3G quality. The home owner hosting this super femtocel would get a minimum of 10% of this capacity for broadband service but be able to burst up to the full speed of the circuit when not in use for 3G femtocell service.
- Rooftop femtocell/antenna would have to be deployed by the wireless operator with an Effective Radiated Power (ERP) of 1 to 4 watts to ensure a good neighborhood coverage area. Typical indoor femtocells max out at 0.1 watts with an ERP of 0.4 watts. This may run into some permit problems as some cities might view this as a new cell tower and they make it nearly impossible to deploy new towers.
So what I am suggesting in essence is that the user leases out their own property and electrical outlets in exchange for free cell and broadband service. This is actually being done in some rural areas where farmers will lease out their land to wireless operators for a fee, but these are the very large towers. Wireless carriers might be able to implement a smaller scale version of this by using a juiced up rooftop femtocell with a quality ensured broadband backhaul. There may be regulatory or practical obstacles to this idea but it is certainly worth a discussion. If any wireless carriers actually offered something like this, I’d be one of the first to volunteer my roof.