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AT&T Testing Femtocells

The wireless carrier will deploy femtocells in test markets in early 2009, and wants the mini-cell phone towers to boost data connections as well as voice.
AT&T is testing femtocell technology, and the wireless carrier plans to begin deploying units in trial markets next year.

One of the major complaints wireless carriers get is poor reception at a subscriber's work or home. Femtocells are portable units that boost coverage in small areas by essentially acting as miniature cell towers. While most current femtocells focus on voice connections, AT&T executives said the company wants to provide femtocells that also boost 3G data connections.

"We're really excited about this," said John Stankey, chief executive of AT&T's operations division, at a conference Tuesday. "I don't know how you compete in the voice space with someone who has a pristine voice connection in the home through a femtocell."

As wireline services continue to decline, being able to provide clear and strong voice connections in subscribers' homes will become increasingly important. Rival Verizon Wireless has already said that it is looking at femtocells for its large subscriber base.

Earlier this year, Sprint rolled out the Airave cell phone boosting hardware. The Airave connects to Sprint's network via a user's broadband network and creates a smaller cell phone network up to 5,000 square feet. The service requires an additional $4.99 monthly fee, and the hardware costs $99.

T-Mobile is also making a play for the home voice market, but the fourth-largest carrier is taking a different approach. In June the company launched the @Home service that enables subscribers to use their broadband connections for unlimited nationwide calling. Customers need to buy a $50 wireless router from the carrier, and they can then plug in corded or wireless phones to the router and start calling. A 2-year service agreement is required, and the home service costs $10 a month in addition to a wireless plan.