AT&T Femtocell

Posted in Spritely by Dimitri on March 29, 2010

Living in NYC, I have to deal with the now notorious AT&T coverage. Dropped calls. Never-ending web page loads. AT&T has finally admitted that they are having these problems, and are looking for a way to improve them.

One of the ways you can take it upon yourself to help improve your reception is with AT&T’s own “Femtocell” box. This is basically a miniature cell tower that you can put into your house, and route all of your calls, incoming or outgoing, over VOIP. It turns no-bar, low-bar, or inconsistent reception into perfect, full-bar reception. And for $150, it’s not TOO expensive: it’s about 1.5 times what I pay AT&T every month. AT&T doesn’t require a contract to use this (your minutes are used, even at home), but if you talk a lot at home and want to step down your minute package, you can also get unlimited minutes while at home for $20/month (and save $100 on the box). If you have AT&T home services already, that monthly fee drops to $10 or even free (if you have voice+internet).

Now I personally agree with TechCrunch and CNET, that AT&T should provide these boxes free or reduced costs to customers who have complained or who live in their admittedly “bad” areas, like NYC and SF. By getting these into the hands of tens of thousands of people, rather than hundreds, they will help offload the use of the local towers onto free-to-AT&T local internet connections.

But what’s surprising to me is that AT&T didn’t go for a bigger play here. For years Verizon has touted that you can get “One Bill” for your cell phone and home phone. That’s nothing. Imagine that AT&T offered their femtocell as a proper VOIP box, complete with the ability to port your home number. Doing this would give users a home phone number that would ring traditional house phones as well as cell phones, Google Voice style. And since they are doing all the switching on their end, why not allow these home phone calls to be taken anywhere? By piggybacking on the user’s existing internet connection, AT&T reduces their own costs, and makes their customers happier.

I can imagine a family that pays AT&T for 5 lines: a home line, which rings the cheap plastic handsets throughout the home, and a line each for mom, dad, and the 2 kids. When the family is on the go, their cell phones switch automatically over to using the cell network. When at home, all of their calls are routed over VOIP, and they pay a small fee to AT&T for the unlimited talk time. Additionally, the home line can be set to ring both the parents when neither of the parents are at home. This sort of scenario is happening anyway, but without the convenience of multiple lines: the rule in many homes is that kids use the cheap VOIP line when chatting with friends to save on huge cell phone bills.

And why femtocell? Years ago T-Mobile had a technology called @home that worked over WiFi. With all smartphones these days including WiFi, it makes more sense that AT&T and manufacturers would simply allow our phones to switch over to using WiFi when in range of our routers, without the need of additional hardware.


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