Bring dead spots back to life with cell-phone access point

Femtocells are less complex than they sound, and fix most of what you hate about cell nets

I thought everyone who cared knew about femtocells as a way to make cell phone networks easily available inside radio-deadening buildings, but apparently not.

Carriers certainly don't make a big deal about their equivalent of the wireless access point, which will become a bigger deal as end-user companies move more quickly to cut users loose from their desks and let them do their work using devices originally designed just to let them make calls.

I keep seeing stories about how corporations can move to LTE and WiMax or 4G and marketing stuff from virtualization developers and hardware companies and networking companies all trying to make it easier for a company to put real corporate applications on iPhones or other handhelds and not run into problems with dead zones, dead-ish zones and the need to drop a 3G connection to create one for a local WiFi when you walk into a building.

The answer was supposed to be fixed-mobile convergence -- a set of protocols and contracts that would enable both cell networks and corporate WLANs to recognize both ends of a call and hand off the connection from one to the other.

That way a user making a voice or data call on an iPhone wouldn't lose the connection walking into a building. The cell net would hand off to the WLAN and the user would be none the wiser.

And the carrier would be none the richer, which is one big reason FMC never went anywhere.

If you're relying on a cell carrier to improve its network in your campus area, forget it. They're too busybuilding out their next-gennetworks to compete with each other to worry much about you.

The alternative is to put up cellular access points called femtocells, Network Extenders or Cel-Fi APs.

Alcatel-Lucent is getting a lot of interest, apparently. Both Sprint and Verizon have been selling them for a while; T-Mobile is testing one that does WiFi as well. I had one from Verizon and it worked well, though it offered absolutely zero financial benefit or incentive.

It picks up the signal from your cell phone, converts it to IP and sends it out across your broadband network, just as a cell-phone tower would, except the network is yours rather than the carrier's.

Even these guys are building one, and everyone knows a telecom technology has really made the big time when you see it mainly on infomercials late at night.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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