Verizon Wireless femtocell launches yesterday, AT&T plays catch-up

Right on schedule, the nation's largest carrier is rolling out the first deployment of cellular signal-boosting femtocell equipment on private premises, using high-speed Internet as the backbone.

In perhaps one of its more radical experiments -- at least for Verizon Wireless -- the carrier is offering its Wireless Network Extender device for a lump-sum payment of $250. It's not a service, you don't subscribe to it, but you also don't need Verizon's wireless Internet service to use it either.

The benefits, the carrier promises, are plainly stated: The femtocell device boosts signal quality for VZW cellular service over a 5,000 square foot area centered around the device, by transmitting a signal piped through over the Internet throughout that area. The Extender does not reduce VZW subscribers' bill.

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The question for now is, how many extra subscribers will this help VZW service? Common sense thinking might tell you that if someone's having trouble getting cellular service, she's in a location where the Internet isn't that much more accessible, either. Since the device is portable, theoretically, a subscriber could use an EV-DO or 3G card on his laptop in conjunction with the Extender, to boost his VZW signal strength anywhere in the world where he can't turn around and see 3,000 or so folks from "The Network" standing behind him. But that assumes the signal strength on that 3G connection is clear to begin with -- specifically, he needs 40 Kbps per caller (according to the Samsung user manual for the device itself -- PDF available here), with a maximum of three callers. If the signal is that clear to begin with, then why use the Extender?

As it turns out, charter customers for this device could be comprised in large part of workers in congested rural areas -- not out in the boondocks -- where the architecture of the city gets in the way, or who work underground. If a wired Internet connection can be piped down there, then you can at least build breathing room to operate your cell phone and still pace the floor.

VZW's device contains a built-in GPS to help identify network subscribers, and also to share location data with emergency officials for 911 calls.

Not to let itself look like an also-ran for too long, #2 carrier AT&T this morning revealed a picture of its forthcoming MicroCell device, co-branded with its network partner, Cisco. Its page does make it appear as though the device is available now, though hyperlinks that would take the customer to further information currently lead nowhere, with one exception: an FAQ which states its device requires a wired Internet connection capable of sustaining 3G bandwidths (so much for the boondocks angle).

The Cisco device will service up to four users within a 5,000 square-foot area. So far, pricing and availability are unknown.

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