Sprint EV-DO Femtocells Boost Mobile Coverage

Can you hear me now? Sprint quietly offered free Evolution Data Optimized femtocells for customers lacking adequate wireless signals on their mobile phones.

Mobile carrier Sprint Nextell is reaching out with free femtocells to customers who have trouble getting good reception, a spokesman from the company confirmed to the wireless industry publication FierceWireless. A femtocell acts as a small cellular base station, typically designed for use in a home or small business. It connects to the service provider's network via broadband (such as DSL or cable), and current designs typically support two to four active mobile phones in a residential setting; up to 16 active mobile phones can be supported in enterprise settings.

"Sprint is offering the Airave Access Point for customers who have specific in-building coverage issues," Sprint spokesman Mark Elliott told FierceWireless. "Each customer situation is reviewed independently to determine whether the customer would qualify and benefit from Airave use. This is an updated Airave model, and does support Sprint 3G [Evolution Data Optimized] data speeds."

Sprint introduced femtocells in the third quarter of 2007 as a limited rollout in Denver and Indianapolis of a home-based femtocell built by Samsung called the Airave, which works with any Sprint handset. In August 2008, the Airave was rolled out nationwide. Other operators in the United States have followed suit, including Verizon's Wireless Network Extender in 2009, which is based on the same design as the Sprint and Samsung system.

Research firm Berg Insight recently forecast femtocell shipments to reach 12 million units worldwide in 2014, up from 0.2 million in 2009. By 2014, there will be almost six femtocells per macro base station, and the number of femtocell users is estimated to surpass 70 million. "The European, North American and advanced markets in Asia Pacific will account for the vast majority of femtocell shipments in the foreseeable future," predicted report authors André Malm and Marcus Perrson. "In many other countries worldwide, the penetration of fixed broadband connections is much lower and 3G services less developed."

Security issues remain, however. In February, two Trustwave security consultants reported they had uncovered hardware and software vulnerabilities in femtocell devices that can be used to take them over. A cell phone does not have business logic to prevent it from connecting to a wireless device acting as a tower that has been tampered with, so it is possible for malicious users to abuse that trust and sniff traffic as it traverses the network, Trustwave consultants Zack Fasel and Matthew Jakubowski warned.

As the Berg Insight study suggests, security concerns at the enterprise level have so far not blunted industry interest in the technology. According to research from Informa Telecoms & Media, as of Febrary 2010, there were 12 service commitments from operators, including nine commercial launches and several ongoing trials, while completed trials were progressing into deployment plans. This contrasts with eight femtocell service commitments and six commercial launches in November 2009.