Sprint is planning to formally announce a femtocell product by the end of the year, according to Manish Mangal, the company’s Director of Signaling and Control Technology Development.
A femtocell is a low-power, low-cost cellular base station that plugs into a broadband connection for backhaul into the cellular network (looks like a WiFi Access Point). Femtocells will allow Service providers to cost-effectively extend cellular coverage into homes and office buildings, where sometimes it has been difficult to get good cellular coverage. Femtocells operate on the cellular frequencies, so only wireless service providers such as Sprint and Verizon Wireless are authorized to operate them (or operate under approval from the wireless service providers).
Femtocells are much like WiFi hotspots and are seen as competing technologies. WiFi for cellular requires a special mobile phone with dual-mode technology (i.e. with both cellular and WiFi transceivers in the handset), but dual-mode devices have failed to catch on in the U.S., in part due to higher price. Furthermore, dual-mode phones have shorter battery time due to operating on two frequencies. Also, Voice over WiFi is still shaky, primarily because 802.11-n technology that provides Quality of Service (QoS) is still not commercial and because WiFi networks haven’t been optimized for voice. Also, because WiFi operates on spectrum used by other device, it is subject to interference.
Femtocells have their own issues as well: because there are different cellular technologies, and each wireless service provider has its own flavor, customers can get locked onto a cellular carrier. Also, large enterprises typically have service from more than one wireless carrier, further complicating the femtocell picture.
Nonetheless, femtocells have a bright future and Sprint seems to be taking the lead on it. In fact, Google recently entered the space by investing into Ubiquisys, a leading femtocell provider.