Femtocell Redux

Some months ago I sounded off at the news that Optus was conducting the first Australian trials for a commercially-available femtocell unit. The original article can be found here. For those not up to speed, a femtocell is a portable low-power mobile base station that sits in your house or office, and carries mobile calls across your broadband connection. By deploying one of these units, you can gain stellar mobile coverage where before you had little. At least, that's the goal. As was widely discussed at the time, and remains true now, extensive studies have demonstrated that beyond a certain point of data usage it is cheaper for a carrier to simply give users a femtocell, since they save more by moving traffic off the mobile network, and on to someone else's fixed line data network. Unsurprisingly, Optus have chosen against giving them away for free. The audacious model whereby customers must pay to fix inadequate coverage remains, not to mention the privilege of reducing congestion on Optus' network.

Now that the units have been commercially released, certain other information is available - especially regarding quality and price. Optus has announced a deal whereby users on $59 a month or higher plans can get a femtocell (Optus Home Zone) for $5, and that a single connected user will also get unlimited calls to Australian numbers.Up to 12 Optus mobile devices can use the unit, but only one will get the free calls. The other pricing mentioned in the original article remains in place, and to my knowledge Optus have not released any other bundles.

As for how well the system works, reports are extremely mixed. Some users have found it difficult to get their Optus femtocells to work with Telstra broadband services - nourishment for cynics right there - whilst others have complained that although coverage has indeed increased, call quality has decreased. There is also an issue with calls made before you leave the house dropping out once you leave, as the mobile tries to roam from the femtocell to the mobile network, and fails. On the other hand, many users consider this product a godsend, and are happy to pay a little extra for improved coverage.

There is also the issue of placement. Optus recommends that for best results the unit should be located centrally on the premises, and up quite high - such as suspended from a lounge room chandelier - which can make it awkward to cable. Lest you were tempted to place the unit on your desk, be warned that the manufacturer recommends it be kept at least 40cm from your head for safely purposes. While it is a low-power base station, but it is still a base station, which are those things that apparently no one wants near their schools.