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Vodafone hopes to improve coverage in 12 communities by popping small base stations into pubs, clubs and telephone boxes or nailing them to telegraph poles.

The trials will start next year and will use the internet to backhaul connections made to the femtocell boxes, thus providing mobile connectivity to any Vodafone customer. Interested communities should take the matter up with their MP, who is welcome to drop Vodafone a line.

Vodafone has tried this in the West Berkshire village of East Garston, prompted by the parish council and the local MP. That deployment has seen femtos slung into the local boozer, the village hall, social club and post office, all open to anyone with a Vodafone connection and using internet connectivity for backhauling voice and data calls.

Femtocells are clever enough to detect the existing network and pick a suitable frequency on which to operate, so can be fitted by any idiot who can push in a CAT5 cable. That makes them much cheaper to deploy, but unlike the existing domestic deployments of femtocells the operator won't be expecting users to pay for their own backhaul.

Those existing deployments are branded Sure Signal and have suffered considerable teething problems. Our own experience with the service shows it works, but cuts off every voice call within a couple of minutes, which encourages brevity even if it sometimes leaves callers with the impression that they've been left hanging. Sure Signal is better than no coverage at all, but only just.

The problem is taking streams of data coming in over the internet and slotting them into the operator's infrastructure, and (most importantly) the billing system. Any connection between the public internet and the operator's billing system is dangerous, hampered by security measures to the point of impeding reliability.

Vodafone reckons most Sure Signal boxes are working reliability, and that the second-generation boxes to be used in the trials will be even more reliable. They might also be able to take calls off the macro network when the user comes within range, something existing femtocells can't manage, but as the 12 test deployments are intended for places where there is no macro network that's not a big deal.

Femtocells put huge amounts of intelligence at the very edge of the network, making deployment cheap and thus allowing for a lot more base stations. They also make very efficient use of the radio spectrum the operator owns thanks to their limited range, so as well as providing connectivity to not-spots this is also about testing how the networks of the future might configure, and run, themselves. ®

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