Femtocell challenges linger but service is still promising

I have used StarHub's femtocell offering for about two months in my home office. Based on my personal experiences, I take a look at some potential challenges that femtocell deployments currently face.

Late last year, local Telco StarHub launched the first commercially available femtocell (a small cellular base station that connects to a mobile service provider's network via a broadband connection) offering in the world. Called Home Zone, the service includes the free loan of a femtocell base unit for a promotional rate of about US$10 per month. At this point, readers not already familiar with femtocell will probably want to read an introduction I wrote on TechRepublic about this exciting new technology.

StarHub was kind enough to put me on the service, and below are some of my thoughts about the immediate challenges faced by this nascent technology.

Poor reception a problem in some environments

First of all, let me qualify that like most Singaporeans, I live in an apartment. Due to the scarcity of land here in Singapore - and in many developed cities around the world - the floor area of my home isn't really that large.  The biggest problem, though, has probably to do with the fact that I live in a high-rise, which means that reinforced concrete walls tends to get in the way of wireless signals.

As it is, I quickly discovered a blind spot in my kitchen.  Walking into the kitchen when on the phone will result in it being cut off - 100 percent of the time. A further investigation revealed that mobile phones connected to the femtocell will switch over to the main cellular network in that location, which is a recipe for failed calls, due to the extraordinarily bad  cellular coverage in my house.

In all fairness, I must also say that the StarHub technical team, who made an additional trip down to my place, did enquire about the possibility of shifting the femtocell base unit.  They respected the fact that I needed the base station in my study and attempted instead to find other ways to fix the blind spot.

At the end of the day, the team did resolve my particular issue to a satisfactory level by tweaking various settings. In fact, I had another StarHub Home Zone reader contact me about the flawless femtocell coverage that he has enjoyed.

Still, I want to highlight that it would be wrong to assume that femtocell will work for every apartment or house.

Handset incompatibilities might linger

I use a BlackBerry Bold smartphone as my primary mobile handset.  One thing that struck me was how it appears to lack full support for femtocell.  For one, the network name does not appear, which is certain to confuse users who have no inclination towards technology.

Running the latest firmware, I also experienced occasional reboots when at home.  Granted, the latest smartphones from RIM are hardly the epitome of stability they once were.  However, they appeared to reboot a lot more at home; some of the times I witnessed myself in the process of unlocking the door as I returned home.

Unfortunately, I did not have access to many other 3G phones - the femtocell base station that was installed works only on 3G.  As such, I am in no position to ascertain the depth of this issue.  However, my wife's Nokia E61 appears to work without a hitch.  On the other hand, someone else who I corresponded with told me his fully-charged Nokia N95 drains completely in as little as 8 hours.

No doubt the situation will swiftly change as cellphone makers factor femtocell into the latest firmware. In the meantime though, expect problems to linger.


Despite these issues, I still believe in the benefits that femtocell could bring to the table.  As mobile penetration starts to reach and even exceed 100 percent, and users' expectation of seamless cellular coverage grow, femtocell is a logical step to this superior coverage.


Paul Mah is a writer and blogger who lives in Singapore, where he has worked for a number of years in various capacities within the IT industry. Paul enjoys tinkering with tech gadgets, smartphones, and networking devices.

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