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Why would anyone run their own base station?

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Comment With Europe's first femtocell deployment due in two weeks, it's worth taking a moment to consider why you might want to spend your money on extending your operator's coverage, if not just from general goodwill.

On Tuesday Vodafone announced that from 1 July UK punters will be able to buy their very own base station to extend Vodafone's coverage, at their own expense and without so much as a discounted call or free data package to make up for the fact that punters could end up paying for the bandwidth twice.

But running your own base station does have distinct advantages which are worth a second look.

To clarify the Vodafone offer - any Vodafone customer can buy the femtocell, which is supplied by Alcatel-Lucent using a core from picoChip, for £160. But Vodafone isn't expecting that to happen very often: most users will get the box bundled on their tariff, with the option rolling out to more tariffs as Vodafone gets more boxes.

Users can get their broadband from anywhere, though Vodafone recommends a minimum of 1Mb/sec, and connections are on a best-effort basis that the company reckons is as good as its macro network.

If you take your femtocell abroad and try to use it, Vodafone will spot the IP address and refuse the connection. If you've got some sort of router-managed VPN tunnel back to the UK then you'll probably get away with it, though you will be breaking the law locally and risking heavy interference.

Femtocells in the USA have to have GPS as the spectrum licenses aren't country-wide: the femtocell has to know where it is in order to use the right frequency. That's not a problem in Europe, so GPS is left out and the emergency-services requirement (enabling an ambulance to get to the right place) is based on IP address in the same way as VoIP services.

So having established that you can't take your femtocell with you on holiday, and you can't expect Vodafone to give you free calls, the question remains of why you would want a femtocell at all? To which the answer is: to replace the Wi-Fi network you're already running.

Wi-Fi chips are cheap: adding Wi-Fi to a box can cost less than £5, but Wi-Fi is still power-hungry compared to 3G and offers little in the way of enhanced speed to the average user, as well as being horribly prone to interference.

The combination of 3G and Wi-Fi is also hardly a seamless experience; the iPhone offers the nearest thing to a smooth transition from cellular to Wi-Fi, but even that's less than ideal. 3G has very poor indoor penetration, so it's unlikely you get a decent 3G signal in your home right now, but if you did then your phone, laptop and home electronics could happily communicate using licensed frequencies free from interference. An unlimited data tariff means you're not paying twice, and when you leave home your laptop and/or phone remains connected to the same network without interruption.

So compelling is this model that HP now makes laptops with cellular connectivity as their only connectivity - "making the world your hotspot", as Qualcomm would have it.

These days we tend to shut down our laptops when we're moving, but the next generation of devices will want to remain connected more continuously, and we'll want them to have a single, ubiquitous, network to which they can connect rather than a hodgepodge of licensed and unlicensed frequencies using different protocols and different routing.

Right now that network can't extend into our houses, forcing us to (generally manually) switch to a different networking technology, but with a femtocell we can have ubiquitous networking, and mobile phone coverage too, without having to muck about with settings or change IP addresses - which seems a reasonable thing on which to spend 160 quid. ®

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