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Sprint’s Femtocell Goes Nationwide

Steven Hartley, senior analyst at Ovum

US Mobile Operator Sprint is to Launch its Airave Femtocell Nationwide on 17 August 2008. The device will cost $99.99 plus $4.99 per month for device rental. Unlimited calling plans are available for an additional $10 or $20 per month, depending on the number of lines needed. This is another step in the seemingly inexorable rise of femtocells, but also highlights how much work is needed if femtocells are to become viable consumer propositions.

Little to differentiate from T-Mobile@Home

“Sprint’s position in the US market means it needs to be disruptive, but it has launched its femtocell before the technology is sufficiently matured to bring anything unique to the market.”

“The announcement comes a month after T-Mobile’s @Home went nationwide (see Straight Talk Telecoms, 27 June 2008), but differs little. T-Mobile may use WiFi and Sprint a femtocell, but to a consumer they are essentially the same. Both divert fixed line minutes to the mobile operator by routing calls via a box.”

“Also, Sprint’s focus on voice suggests it might be missing a differentiation trick. The Samsung device can only handle 1XRTT data. EV-DO traffic uses the macro network, which is downgraded to 1XRTT if coverage is unavailable. According to Sprint, data is in the pipeline (probably through WiMAX), but we would have expected more emphasis on data from the outset.”

Pricing could hamper uptake

“The charging model is Airave’s greatest weakness. $99.99 and $4.99 per month buys only ‘enhanced coverage’. Usage comes from a user’s existing mobile plan. Therefore, users pay $160 in the first year just for the box – which provides coverage that many will feel Sprint should provide in the first place. This is in addition to broadband access, required for backhaul, and well above the much-touted $100 femtocell price threshold.”

“The unlimited calling plans can be added only in addition to a mobile plan. Therefore, users pay Sprint once to subscribe to Sprint’s mobile service, again to improve indoor coverage and a third time to benefit from Sprint’s backhaul cost savings. This is far from compelling and suggests to customers that Sprint’s indoor coverage must be very weak if it expects customers to pay extra.”

“Then again it is possible to avoid paying $160 altogether. The device provides unsecured access by default. With most people likely to use default settings initially and with a range of 5,000 square feet, someone in a neighbouring apartment could benefit from improved coverage. To be fair, it can be easily secured for up to 50 numbers, but only by the account holder contacting customer services. Only allowing registered users access will mean visitors are unable to benefit; a mechanism allowing for a simple trigger SMS from the account holder containing a password and number requiring access would have been a good move.”

Handover not ideal

“If a user does take a supplementary Airave calling plan, calls initiated on the femtocell are charged at the discounted rate even if the user roams on to the macro network. Sprint told us that it saw little revenue leakage during trials and wanted to prevent bill shock. This is reasonable; however, potential for abuse remains.”

“Conversely, there is no handover to the femtocell for a call initiated on the macro network. This is unhelpful to a user if they paid extra for an Airave calling plan, or bought the femtocell for improved indoor coverage. The call must be completed outside and restarted on the femtocell to benefit.”

GPS undermines plug ‘n’ play

“GPS is included in the device to meet FCC emergency call location stipulations and is required for the Airave to function. However, this additional technical complexity makes set-up that bit more complicated. Given Sprint’s poor customer service reputation, this is a big risk.”

“Firstly the Airave must be sited near a window to get a GPS signal, limiting potential sites. Additionally, the device can take up to an hour to locate a satellite – hardly plug ‘n’ play! An external GPS aerial with a 30-foot cable can be used if problems remain, but this creates another peripheral to site. Ironically, users are warned not to rely on Airave for emergencies in case of power cuts.” /PR

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