Mobile network operators will soon have one more weapon in the their arsenal to blanket every last square inch of the US with network coverage. First was the general macro network environment. Then, as people realized that the macro network doesn't always penetrate large buildings or reach high into the sky and fill office towers with signal, the picocell evolved. Now, for those who have weak coverage at remote office or home locations, the femtocell is beginning to see some early light in the market. Samsung was showing off its UbiCell femtocell product at CTIA. Here's why it's cool...and why it's not.Think of a femtocell as the cellular version of a Wi-Fi hotspot. The UbiCell is basically a mini base station for your small office, home office or home. If you're located in a poor network coverage area, the UbiCell will provide your out-of-the-way office with full coverage for voice and data. If you needed just one more reason to drop your landline altogether, this is it. You will no longer be able to complain about lack of signal.
Here's how it works. You go to a retail outlet where your carrier has a presence. You buy the UbiCell. At the time of purchase, you have to tether specific numbers to it, i.e., your 5 employees or 6 family members. They must all have accounts with that carrier. You bring the UbiCell back to your office, plug it into your broadband connection (DSL, cable, fiber, etc.) and the UbiCell will self configure and connect itself to your carrier's backhaul network via the Internet. Instant, personal base station. The UbiCell even seamlessly hands off calls between itself and the larger macro networks when you step outside. Cool.
There are some major drawback, however. The first is that the number of phones you can tether to the UbiCell is limited. I was not given a straight answer by Samsung, but it's somewhere in the 4-10 range. Only 4 cell phones can actively use it at the same time, however. If you have a busy sales office and more than four people need to use it at once, this could pose some problems. Also, any visitors to your office or home will not have access to the UbiCell at all, even if they are using the same carrier.
Another drawback is that you can't take it with you. According to the Samsung spokesperson I spoke with, once the UbiCell is configured through your broadband connection, it becomes a licensed base station with the FCC and must remain in place. You can't unplug it, bring it with you on vacation in the mountains, and expect it to work. The UbiCell is specifically to provide static cell coverage in one location.
The current generation covers about 5000 square feet, which is an area larger than most homes and still a reasonable footprint for small offices. The first version to hit the market with be voice and CDMA 1xRTT data coverage only, no EV-DO, yet. (Unofficially, Sprint will be the first carrier to offer it.) Samsung is working on WCDMA and EV-DO versions, neither of which will be available until the first quarter of 2008.
When asked about pricing, I was told that Samsung wants it to be affordable for the general consumer. Prices will likely be subsidized by the carriers.