You love your cell phone. But does your cell signal sag or disappear at home? Instead of hotspots, do you have "not spots"?
Or, do you long to switch to a new carrier to get better pricing or a particular bleeding-edge phone, but you know from visiting friends and neighbors that signal from your desired carrier is weak or non-existent in your domicile?
Or, you get great coverage at home but, at the office you have fewer bars than Baghdad?
The solution for all of these cell coverage problems is the geekly-named "femtocell."
A femtocell is a hardcover book-sized mini-cell tower. You plug it into whatever box brings broadband internet into your house or office – a cable or DSL modem, for instance, or just an Ethernet jack. You tell it what phone number or numbers (up to four) it will service (you provision it online), and, voilá, you have a cell tower that will blanket around 5,000 square feet.
The name derives from the prefix "femto-" – it follows (in descending order) milli- , micro- , pico- and nano- to denote increasingly shrinking tech things. (Technically, "femto" means one quadrillionth of whatever follows it, but in this case the term is used more euphemistically.)
AT&T, Sprint and Verizon all sell femtocells, although it seems as though it's a secret – only Sprint lists it's Airave ($130) femtocell among the "Phones " on its web site (scroll toward the bottom of the list). But you can't buy Airave online. You have to call Sprint at 800-777-4681.
Verizon lists its femtocell, called Network Extender ($250), under "accessories" on its Web site (find it here), and you can buy it online.
You have to check AT&T's "3G MicroCell" web page for availability in your area – just don't use Apple's Safari browser to do so (for some reason the Zip Code search tool in Safari yields no results). But the Web page doesn't list pricing; when launched a year ago it was $150 before a $100 rebate, but reportedly the price has risen to $200, before presumably the same $100 rebate.
Now how much would you pay?
In all three cases, you pay no additional monthly charges – just the cost of the femtocell.
Why free service? Because by buying a femtocell, you're doing the carrier and your fellow cell subscribers a favor. By accessing the network from your own cell tower, you're helping to alleviate congestion on increasingly over-burdened wireless data networks.
Carriers don't really want to institute caps – it's bad for publicity and for business. So, according to folks at the Femtocell Forum, some carriers are actually identifying and reaching out to high-volume data users and offering a femtocell at low cost or gratis just to get them off the network. If you're a heavy data user impacted by these data caps, the carrier may be willing to make a deal with you.
In addition, AT&T has reportedly sent mailers to the 7.5 percent of its customers with the poorest at-home reception.
But considering AT&T's well-publicized connectivity issues, it's somewhat shocking that its femtocell isn't being marketed as aggressively as Vodaphone is pushing its femtocell program in England.
Right now, femtocells are 3G only and can service up to four specified users at once, but there are ambitious plans for expanded services and features.
For instance, the next-generation femtocells will be smaller, such as the tiny thing next to the AT&T MicroCell in the photo. They'll be able to handle eight calls simultaneously. Instead of a "closed" network requiring you to register specific phone numbers for use with a particular femtocell, there'll be semi-open and open models – semi-open will give priority to registered users but anyone within range will be able to tap into it; open means, obviously, anyone can use it.
Some will come with a standard RJ-11 landline phone jack, which will let you hook up a standard, easier-to-shoulder-cradle landline phone to answer your cell calls. A femtocell could detect and alert you via text message when your latch key kids come home.
The white lab coat kids also are developing an "attacell" – a USB stick you plug into a Web-connected laptop to creates a low-power cell tower. You'd put your cell on or near the stick and use your Bluetooth headset to access a local network in a fringe area. 4G femtocells are under development as well.
If only the carriers – especially AT&T – made their current femtocells easier to find and buy.