Femtocell and picocell manufacturer ip.access unveiled its fully functioning "Advanced Femtocell Concept" (AFC) at the no doubt riotous Femtocells Americas 2011 conference in San Diego on Monday. A relatively new technology, femtocells essentially provide mobile phone network access via a local broadband connection. It's a technology that might interest homes and businesses in signal-blocking buildings, remote areas, or anywhere where cellular signals are patchy. But how is the AFC different? In a word: portability.
Whereas most femtocells require a wired connection to a router, the AFC can connect via Wi-Fi: a feature that ip.access claims is unique to their concept. This frees up the device to be optimally placed to provide local network coverage. The only limitation is a power outlet for the docking station, and a functional Wi-Fi signal. Perhaps more compelling, you could take a "battery powered variant" of the AFC out on the road and connect it to any Wi-Fi network to which you have access, be that at a friend's or a local cafe. The AFC includes integrated GPS, required by some carriers to verify the location of femtocells.
In a press release, ip.access CTO Dr. Nick Johnson suggests an LTE version of the device could be used to set up a temporary public Wi-Fi hotspot. "In an LTE world, this would be the ultimate in personal metro zone hot spots," he said.
But is it as simple as that? Lest we forget, LTE (Long Term Evolution) is ostensibly (putting the debates to one side for a moment) a 4G mobile communication standard theoretically capable of speeds up to 100 Mbit/s. In reality, those with access to LTE networks (a trial by mobile operator O2 is currently underway in London) will likely experience slower data connections than that, but will notice marked performance improvements compared to 3G.
Where we suspect Johnson's claims begin to hit shaky ground is that pesky public Wi-Fi providing the middleman between your phone and your mobile provider's data network, which surely effectively throttles the data connection to the Wi-Fi network's limit. Your mileage may vary, but my experience of public Wi-Fi is teeth-grinding to put it mildly, with the 3G often performing better where access allows. And if we're talking about data connectivity what's to stop users connecting directly to the Wi-Fi network in any case?
The case for femtocells diminishes given the capability of the 700 MHz band, which some carriers will use for LTE, to penetrate buildings. And objections have been raised to the very idea of femtocells, obtained at the user's expense to the benefit of the mobile carrier.
None of which is to say that the AFC is a doomed concept. Not only do femtocells provide mobile network access beyond the reach of cell towers, they can also enhance voice quality and preserve battery life in the process. It seems obvious, then, that a femtocell that connects to a Wi-Fi network is preferable to one that does not. The advantages of that additional flexibility - especially a battery-powered model - may be fringe, but they are advantages all the same.
ip.access better hurry, though. If it doesn't get its concept to market before too long, widely available LTE may render Wi-Fi itself obsolete.