And the main findings after a few months of use? The technology works, is exceedingly simple to use, and has the potential to deliver advanced services and applications.
Most obviously, the femtocell gives you full network coverage in and around your home. For people living in areas of limited mobile coverage, this solves a huge problem, and, even where I live in urban South London, it helps augment the variable Vodafone coverage I receive living at the cell edge.
It's also interesting to look at the approach Vodafone has taken to launching the service. There's no doubt it works, and works well, but it also has the flavor of an Internet service launched in beta, in that the carrier seems to want to get the technology out in the hands of users – and then iterate and refine the service using experience gained from a live, commercial, network.
In a nutshell, the 3G Access Gateway is a low-power cellular access point self-installed in the user's home. In its current form, it offers the exact same services and tariffs available on the macro network. Here's a rundown of the major features and use cases as I experienced them:
- Install and setup is exceedingly simple. All I had to do was plug the device into my home router and email a phone number to customer support. You can tell it's working because you have full signal on your phone, and there's a little flashing light on the device itself.
- It worked with all the devices I tried, including a new-model, unlocked, Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. 3G/HSPA dongle and an old Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) voice-centric N70 (the U.K.'s first mass-market 3G phone).
- Range is impressive for the tiny amount of power the device puts out. In practical terms, my phone (N95 8GB) maintained connectivity to the femtocell at least as far as our garden shed when streaming 128-kbit/s audio, whereas it loses the WiFi almost as soon as I step out of the back door.
- There doesn't appear to be any difference in battery consumption, latency, or setup times, when using HSPA over the femtocell, compared to HSPA on a macro network in good radio conditions.
- The service supports seamless voice hand-out from femtocell coverage to the macro network. Typically, I found it would hand me out to a 2G rather than 3G network during a call. Hand-in from outdoor to indoor is not supported.
- Hand-out also works for data sessions, although there's roughly a 30-second interruption to audio streaming. I can't think of many times you'd need the feature, but nice to know it works.
- I sensed some differences in the way active-to-idle state transitions are handled – the phone seemed to occasionally hang in active state when normally it would have dropped to idle. It's hard to know, however, if this is the femtocell, the phone itself, or a figment of end-user imagination.
- Using a 3G/HSPA dongle, data rates weren't as high as you get on the Vodafone macro network in good radio conditions. There are various reasons for this, but it's largely irrelevant, in that you would use WiFi at home for laptop use, with the femtocell mainly used for handheld 3G devices.
- I have had no issues whatsoever running the Vodafone Access Gateway service over my DSL line – which happens to be provided by Vodafone rival Telefónica UK Ltd. Even when maxing out the DSL line with HD video, streaming voice calls seemed to get through as normal.
- My main problem with the device/service is prosaic to the point of being mundane, but in our hallway we don't have enough plug sockets for the standalone femtocell. The box itself has also been knocked about a bit by the kids, so I'd rather have this integrated into the DSL home gateway.
- Unlike the new AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) Microcell service, there's no portal to add new phone numbers or manage your device. Instead, you have to email or call customer services. But that's OK – it's what gives the launch a beta feel and is something that can be addressed in the future.
I'd recommend the Vodafone Access Gateway device and service to any 3G subscriber who suffers poor or unduly variable network coverage at home. It solves a problem simply and effectively, although price may be an issue for low-spending users. My device was loaned to me by a PR agency free of charge.
For operators, subsidized femtocells could provide an excellent way of holding onto higher-value 3G customers threatening to churn due to coverage issues at home – yes, I'm looking at you, iPhone users.
More strategically, having proven the technology can provide commercial-grade connectivity and coverage, the industry (vendors, operators, home-networking suppliers, and application developers) can move forward with more confidence on developing advanced, high-value services.
— Gabriel Brown, Senior Analyst, Heavy Reading