AT&T, Verizon Femtocells: To 3G or Not to 3G?

It happened sooner than this reporter expected but the top three wireless carriers now have embraced the home base stations known as femtocells. Verizon Wireless has made good on its previously reported plan to launch the “Network Extender” femtocell service this week. Meanwhile, AT&T Inc. took the hush-hush route, posting a new Web page on its site covering the carrier’s new 3G MicroCell femto — albeit without pricing or availability information.

But here’s the odd thing: Verizon’s Network Extender, which like all femtocells plugs into an existing broadband connection — doesn’t support 3G. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t require an additional service plan to use, though it does carry a $250 price tag for the device itself.

It also doesn’t support the $15 per month Verizon MediaFLO-based television service. No GPS either. In fact, its purpose is just what its name says: to extend the Verizon CDMA cellular network indoors. It blankets a 5,000-square-foot area with coverage, and the idea for the carrier seems to be to simply offload voice backhaul to the wired broadband network.

The Samsung-made box lets up to three phones simultaneously place and receive calls, with a fourth channel reserved for emergency calls.

AT&T’s new Web page meanwhile revealed the 3G MicroCell, a Cisco Systems Inc.-made device that supports 3G and GPS to provide location services.

Precious few other details are available aside from the fact that MicroCell also will support three simultaneous calls, and AT&T lists that individual and family plans will offer unlimited calling through the 3G MicroCell connection.

In the fall Sprint-Nextel Corp. became the first carrier to take a femto device nationwide.

Carriers have a range of business models to choose from when it comes to femtos, which can be used to, among other things, create 3G hotspots and allow cheaper home zone calling.

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