VZW Femtocell in the house!

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Femtocell told you about this technology, which may be the salvation for cell phone users like me who live in an area (the hills in my case) with a weak cell phone signal but a good broadband connection. The femtocell is a small cellular base station which connects to your cell phone service provider’s network via your home’s broadband connection and broadcasts a strong signal through your home. Since the femtocell connects via the Internet rather than over the airwaves, the weakness of your over the air signal doesn’t matter.

Since a femtocell is specific to a carrier, I was waiting for one by either AT&T, the carrier for most of my family’s phones, or Verizon, the carrier for my Blackberry Storm 9530. As for AT&T, still waiting, though probably soon given AT&T’s 3G MicroCell web page. Still, no availability date yet. See Details on AT&T’s 3G MicroCell: everything but the date and price for more … details.

By contrast, earlier this month Verizon (aka VZW) announced the imminent release on Sunday, January 25 of its femtocell, called the Verizon Wireless Network Extender. So guess where I was early Sunday morning on the 25th? Duh … waiting in front of my local VZW store for it to open, of course!

I purchased this bad boy. Its list price is $250. However, the VZW salesperson told me I get a $50 discount because of my Storm’s phone and data plan (i.e., given how much I’m already paying). I think VZW calls this internally the “mercy discount.” While even $200 is pricey, at least there is no monthly charge; the $200 (or $250) is all you pay for the femtocell. However, you still pay for cell phone minutes the same whether you are connected to the VZW via the femtocell or the “old-fashioned” over the airwaves way.

I took the network extender home. Setting it up is a no-brainer. The only issue is exactly where to place it. I live in a rather elongated two story house. The network connections (and my office and bedroom) are downstairs.  The setup instructions suggest you place the unit next to a window so it can best acquire the necessary GPS signal. However, this would place the unit at the edge of the house, and in a location whether the device could get hot. I chose a location toward the mid line of the house, and near the ceiling, on top of a book case. This is about 6 feet away from a window, but with a clean line of sight, so the unit still was able to acquire a GPS signal.

My verdict — preliminary since only a few hours have passed — is that the network extender does help on voice calls. Since the number of bars is not that scientific. I use the dBm measurement. Roughly speaking, there is an about 10-15 dBm improvement. For example, in my office downstairs at an end of the house, before the signal was 100-100 dBm, after in the 90s. While this isn’t a huge number difference, it makes the difference in being able to make and receive calls. Upstairs, where the signal always was stronger than in my office, before the signal was in the 90s, now in the 80s. While even the 90s is good enough to make and receive calls, the lower the dBm, often the less the drain on the battery.

The signal also seems to remain stronger vertically than horizontally. Perhaps that’s because of the differences in construction materials between the walls though which the signal must travel horizontally and the 1st story ceiling/2nd story floor through which the signal travels vertically.

As the FAQ confirms, the femtocell doesn’t support 3G, so your browsing won’t be any faster. The femtocell really is for voice calls. And for your voice calls, not your neighbor’s. Using VZW’s online account management, you can restrict access to specified phone numbers.

The blogosphere is replete with articles condemning VZW for charging for equipment which enables VZW to avoid having to upgrade its cellular network by removing voice traffic off that network and routing it instead over the user’s broadband connection. See Is Verizon Wireless Network Extender a Ripoff?, Verizon’s Femtocell Is Pretty Lame and jkOnTheRun’s take. I sympathize, though this criticism may not be correct in all cases, such as if the problem is inside your house due to its construction materials. But also on a practical level, at least in my part of the hills, none of the carriers have a strong signal. So what do I do? I need a working cell phone at home. I called VZW support, just as I did AT&T before, but whatever tower tweaking they did didn’t help much. I certainly don’t have the financial pull to influence cell phone providers with a threat to take my business elsewhere. The femtocell seems the best alternative.

Given my home’s configuration, size and construction materials, one device may not be sufficient for the entire house. However, Can I use more than one Network Extender in the same home? warns: “Placing multiple Network Extenders in a single home is not advised. Interference can occur when devices are placed within close proximity of each other.” Besides, that’s another $200 🙁

I’m going to play with the location of my femtocell, including moving it upstairs after wiring a network connection there. The reason is not because the signal would be better going down(stairs) that up(stairs). AFAIK, gravity has no discernable effect. Rather, upstairs is more open, less walls, so the signal should radiate farther. We’ll see …

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