Vodafone Launches Home 3G Femtocell In The UK

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www.eweekeurope.co.uk/news/update–vodafone-will-offer-3g-femtocell-free–1205A breakthrough moment for signal-boosting indoor 3G femto technology – but will Vodafone encourage data on the system?

Vodafone has launched the first commercial 3G femtocell in Europe, designed to boost signals indoors and offload traffic from the mobile network

The Vodafone Access Gateway can be ordered from Vodafone shops or online from 1 July.

Looking like a home router, femtocells give 3G coverage indoors, and use home broadband to connect calls across the Internet to the mobile network. The Vodafone device, announced at the Femtocells  World Summit in London, this is believed to be the first full commercial launch of a 3G femtocell in Europe – and possibly the world, depending how you define 3G.

The device is understood to be a femtocell built by Alcatel Lucent using silicon from femto specialist picoChip, and will be available on different price plans – from outright purchase at £160, to bundling with contracts around £15 per month.

Update: Vodafone clarified these price plans. (Essentially, the femto is free to anyone on a £30 contract, and £5 otherwise – including dongle customers).

“This is very much an early stage rollout, specifically aimed at coverage, and focussing on voice, not data” long-time femto watcher Dean Bubley of Disruptive Analysis. Femtos will first be deployed to offer better indoor coverage and keep customer loyalty, he said. This is similar to Sprint’s femto deployed in the US, which supports CDMA2000, not universally defined as a 3G network. After that, operators will attempt to offload traffic from their networks, and and then deliver new applications on the devices.

“It’s certainly the first of its kind in Europe, and I see Vodafone says it will work over every home broadband line,” said Bubley. “But are all the broadband lines good enough? And it means they are at the mercy of ISP’s usage policies.”

The device will support up to four voice calls, and users will register the handsets they want to use it on the web. The announcement makes no mention of using dongles or data, noted Bubley: “It’s focussed around voice, so it looks like they are trying to create a low impact service initially.”

The Alcatel-Lucent device believed to be in Vodafone’s offering is well capable of data traffic, supporting HSPA at more than 7Mbps, so the gateway should work well with laptops. It is possible that Vodafone is not marketing that heavily, to avoid complaints from fixed operators. BT has recently objected to carrying content for the BBC iPlayer without extra payment, and ISPs could object to supporting a rival mobile player in this way, said Bubley.

Vodafone did not address the issue of any agreements with ISPs in its presentation.

“The Vodafone Access Gateway will boost indoor mobile phone coverage for customers who today, find they need to move around the rooms in their home to get a consistent signal strength,” said Ian Shepherd, consumer director, Vodafone UK. “We are committed to delivering the best, most reliable network and this is another step towards maintaining a seamless service.”

“The most telling thing is that the announcement was made by a marketing head,” said Paul Callahan, vice president of business development at femto maker Airvana. “You can have a huge disconnect between the technology dreamers and the marketing guys who have to sell the device. It seems Vodafone is going to run with this.”

Tha announcement should address requests from the budding femto industry for operator backing. Yesterday, Keith Day of femto maker Ubiquisys said: “What the industry needs is an operator that does the full promotional package on a femtocell.”

picoChip was unable to confirm its involvement but Rupert Baines, vice president of marketing was at the conference and said: “This is exciting news. It’s a full national retail launch, and the first launch of an HSPA femto.”

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