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March 24, 2010

AT&T Taps Cisco for Femtocell-Like Offer

By Paula Bernier, Executive Editor, TMC

AT&T announced today plans to roll out its 3G MicroCell solution, which it developed with Cisco (News - Alert)Systems, beginning in mid-April. The product is available for a one-time cost of $149.99.

The solution is targeted at residential customers who live in homes that have coverage impediments that consistently interrupt wireless spectrum, such as dense wall and roof construction or unfavorable terrain. It allows for the routing wireless phone calls and data connections across a home broadband connection. Up to 10 lines can share the MicroCell, and up to four connections are simultaneously supported on it.

As discussed in the March issue of TMC’s NGN Magazine, AT&T toward the middle of 2009 last year began using femtocell-like technology from Cisco in pilot tests in areas of North Carolina (including Charlotte and Raleigh), South Carolina (including Columbia), Georgia (including Atlanta), as well as in San Diego.

“Customers can benefit from improved wireless voice coverage in their homes, particularly those with coverage conditions we cannot mitigate, such as homes and buildings with thick walls or with geographic challenges,” AT&T spokeswoman Jenny Bridges recently told NGN. (At the time she added that although the company was using Cisco gear for the trials it had not yet confirmed the final vendor for its planned national launch.)

“AT&T 3G MicroCell complements AT&T's wireless and Wi-Fi networks and is more evidence of AT&T's commitment to serve its customers with the best in mobile broadband,” she added.

While we’ve heard about femtocells and femtocell-like technologies for some time, not even half a million femtocell units have shipped to date, so it’s clearly early days for the technology.

According to Aditya Kaul, practice director of mobile networks at ABI Research, a total of 400,000 femtocells shipped last year, with service providers typically ordering tens or hundreds of the devices at a time for trials. However, Kaul says, many of those trials are now concluding and some are being followed by actual commercial rollouts.

“Operators really are starting to put their weight behind it,” Kaul says.

ABI Research forecasts that there will be 2 million femtocell units shipped this year; 6 million shipped in 2011; and 40 million delivered in 2014.

Sprint (News - Alert), which quietly launched Airave services in 2008 using Samsung technology, has led the way in terms of femtocell adoption.  The service provider is shipping femtocells in an effort to target suburban and remote users with less than ideal voice coverage, Kaul says, but he adds that Sprint is not heavily promoting the offer. Airvana tells NGN that Sprint also is a customer of its 3G femtocell solution.

Verizon (News - Alert)in early 2009 followed in Sprint’s footsteps, introducing a similar offer that is intended to address the needs of those customers with coverage concerns. The Network Extender solution from Verizon Wireless outfits customers with a $249.99 “mini-cell site” from Samsung (News - Alert)that covers up to 5,000 square feet. Verizon Wireless spokesman Tom Pica says the product was introduced to help extend network coverage to customers that live on the fringes of the company’s network or may, for example, have a basement office in which they’d like better coverage.

“Our new Network Extender device will bring the full benefit of the Verizon Wireless voice network to the small but important segment of customers who may experience a weaker signal in their homes because of geographic or structural conditions,” says Jack Plating, executive vice president and COO of Verizon Wireless, who was quoted in a press release issued in January of 2009. “Current and prospective customers have told us they want this, and we are responding to that demand. For those who have wanted to sign up for Verizon Wireless service but hesitated because of reception problems unique to their home location, this is the answer.”

Comcast, which resells the WiMAX-based services of partner Clearwire (News - Alert), also is reportedly testing femtocells in an effort that some believe could signal the beginnings of a femtocell movement within the WiMAX community.

While U.S. operators as a rule are not making a big push around femtocell technology, at least one wireless service provider abroad has taken the plunge. Vodafone in the U.K. recently made a splash with its introduction of Sure Signal, a femtocell-based service that Kaul says the company is promoting in a big way.

Edited by Michael Dinan

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