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SoftBank punts free ADSL for femtocell folk

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Free ADSL and a free femtocell, but you still have to pay for mobile calls: Japanese punters now have a new business model from SoftBank Mobile.

Rather than offer better coverage, or discounted calls, SoftBank Mobile is turning the femtocell business around by offering free ADSL to anyone who'll extend the operator's coverage by fitting a femtocell into their home or business.

Femtocells are tiny, generally 3G, base stations that piggyback on the customer's broadband connection to route calls back to the operator's network. The utility of such technology is unquestioned, though some operators have found integration challenging and there's still a lot of debate around who pays for them.

SoftBank will be supplying free femtocells, made by Google-backed Ubiquisys, to home users as well as small businesses and retailers who fancy getting some free broadband and providing decent coverage for their own customers.

Existing femtocell deployments (including Vodafone in the UK) have played up the extended coverage – Vodafone brands its offering "Sure Signal" - but users are (effectively) paying twice as calls are charged as usual while the data sent over the ADSL counts against their ISP-issued allowance.

It's widely thought that discounted, or free, phone calls would be the killer feature driving the adoption of femtocells - which do, after all, unload the operator's infrastructure costs onto the customer.

But SoftBank has switched that around, asking customers to continue to pay for calls while it pays for the infrastructure in the form of ADSL to the customer's premises. Even better – existing femtocell deployments are limited to prevent any passing customer taking advantage of the femtocell-user's broadband, but as SoftBank is paying for the ADSL there's no reason to do that and the network gains genuinely increased coverage.

That's going to work better in Japan, where population density allows a single femtocell to cover a greater number of people/apartments/houses, but the concept is intriguing and would scale well into LTE (4G) networks. Whether anyone else will emulate SoftBank's approach remains to be seen, but certainly the industry will be watching to see if SoftBank, and Ubiquisys, can make it pay. ®

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