The home base station: Too much of a hard cell?

Summary:Despite the fact that a study out this month has shown that the cancer risk from mobiles is more hot air than anything, how many people would be willing to put a base station in their home?

Despite the fact that a study out this month has shown that the cancer risk from mobiles is more hot air than anything, how many people would be willing to put a base station in their home?

A number of mobile operators are willing to bet you might consider doing just that. Of course, we're not talking about the type of base stations that transmit mobile signals across kilometres and needle NIMBYs every time they go up, but the smaller kind meant for personal use -- the femtocell.

Femtocells are, in the most simplistic terms, just a scaled down version of a mobile base station. The purpose of having one in your home or, for that matter, office is to boost mobile reception levels in-building.

Typically, until now, femtocells have been talked about in terms of simply improving signals, or network in-fill, for when mobile-dependent businesses find their coverage hamstrung by the building they work in.

Now, it seems, things are moving in a different direction with operators not only targeting so-called "home zone pricing" where customers are offered cheaper call rates when they use their mobiles at home, in an attempt to encourage fixed-mobile substitution -- but also entirely new services.

Femtocell maker ip.access and networking company Mavenir Systems, recently announced a partnership and, with it, some proposed ideas for services femtocells could enable: "parents being able to receive SMS alerts when family members enter or depart the home; presence information updating automatically on social networking sites; and subscribers having a virtual home number which rings all mobiles, traditional phones or PC clients currently in the femtozone at home".

A couple of UK operators are tinkering with the idea of femtocells and one of them, O2, has gone so far as to announce a full-on pilot with NEC and Ubiquisys with a view to a commercial launch next year.

While O2 hasn't said much about quite what type of services it intends to use its femtocells for, the hint is that it could be used to put some more grunt into existing so-called mobile broadband rather than opening the door to entirely new offerings.

"Femtocells are designed to improve indoor 3G mobile-broadband coverage by re-routing data from cellular networks and onto wired DSL connections, building cellular coverage from the inside out," says O2.

That sort of description is very much reminiscent of fellow UK operator BT's attempt at FMC, a service named Fusion, which has so far failed to take off in any significant way. So can O2 succeed where BT failed?

BT's FMC service required users to buy new handsets, femtocell services don't, which immediately opens up far greater possibilities in terms of customer base. However, if O2 is just going to pitch its femtocell service on the pricing ideal, rather than with new services, it might fight itself struggling.

Mobile operators, after all, are engaging in a race to the bottom on voice and text pricing. If consumers are just after "cheap", then there are easier ways for them to get it than sticking a base station in their home.

And O2 has still got to figure out how to market the idea of home base stations to the average punter -- and it's not going to be an easy sell for the operator. Whatever the facts of the matter, mobile base stations are still tainted with a carcinogenic whiff in the public mind. There are going to have to be some pretty compelling services to overcome that sort of perception.

Topics: Telcos

About

Jo Best has been covering IT for the best part of a decade for publications including silicon.com, Guardian Government Computing and ZDNet in both London and Sydney.

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