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Personal Femtocell Takes Off For iPhone

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

A personal femtocell – called an attocell – will let users make calls abroad without roaming, says Keith Day of Ubiquisys

For those people who like international travelling but hate having to pay for expensive international mobile calls or fiddle with VoIP, the world’s first attocell (a personal femtocell) from Ubiquisys could be the answer.

When a user is travelling, the attocell can set up a bubble of 3G connectivity which routes normal 3G voice and data back across the Internet, so users can use their phone just as at home, without paying for roaming.

This may sound like a personal Wi-Fi hotspot, of which we know several, but it is not. On the plus side, it uses the normal 3G mode of the phone so the caller uses all his normal address books and so on. It is initially being promoted for the iPhone, and Ubiquisys thinks iPhone users will like the ease of use.

On the minus side, unlike Wi-Fi, 3G uses licensed radio spectrum, and in each country only a few operators will have permission to use it. Ubiquisys hopes to gets round this by working very quietly, under the minimum signal strength allowed to leak from non-3G equipment.

When we heard of the device, we spoke to Keith Day, VP of marketing at Ubiquisys: “It works like a femtocell,” he told us. “The only difference is that it has a much smaller range.” In a lot of cases this means putting the phone on top of the device and using a Bluetooth headset.

Internet Required

For those that don’t know, femtocells are essentially a small low-power 3G base station the size of a wireless router, and sometimes even smaller. Femotcells handle calls and data from 3G mobile phones, and are used inside buildings, connecting through to the cellular or mobile network over wired broadband.

This eases the load on big “macro” cells outside the building, and but perhaps more crucially, gives users a much stronger a mobile signal indoors. Vodafone’s SureSignal launched in the UK back in June 2009 is just one such example of a femtocell.

Ubiquisys’ attocell is a portable femtocell for international travellers. It has been developed specifically for the iPhone, but Ubiquisys assured eWEEK Europe UK that it works out of the box with any 3G phone, and has been tested with Blackberry, Nokia and Android smartphones.

“We were working to a brief from a set of mobile operators,” explained Day. “We didn’t choose the iPhone but it is a natural first choice according to the brief, and is a widely used phone especially with business people who travel internationally. That said it works with any phone, but we had to start somewhere.”

How Does It Work?

“It works exactly like a femtocell,” said Day. “The only difference is that it has a much smaller range, and you have to place the phone physically on top of the device. Take for example a UK person who is in New York. They connect the attocell to a laptop that has an internet connection. The attocell plugs into the laptop (via USB) which also powers the device.

The attocell then analyses the IP address and radio environment to determine which country it is in, and sets its 3G radio power accordingly to below the licensed level. In some countries its range will be just 5mm, in other countries, it could cover a whole room.

“We can’t make any firm statement about the regulatory position of one country to another, but I am sure the regulators will work out between themselves,” said Day, addressing any regulatory concerns.

It uses the internet connection to route the call through to the user’s home network, in this case back in the UK. Calls can be made using a bluetooth headset or the phone’s speaker system.

Intelligent Femtocell

Ubiquisys says that the attocell continuously monitors its radio environment to ensure that there is zero impact on existing mobile networks. “This intelligence, combined with its tiny power output, is likely to make the attocell exempt from regulatory controls and the requirement for type approval,” said the company.