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Verizon and AT&T's femtocells boost coverage, but not without a catch

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Have spotty wireless phone coverage at home? A femtocell could be for you.

Femto?

These book-sized devices act as mini cellphone towers when connected to a home broadband network, bathing a 5,000 square-foot area in glorious phone coverage. Walk outside of the device's coverage area, and calls are seamlessly transferred to the regular cellular network.

Sprint already offers a femtocell called Airave, but Verizon and AT&T have just this week released details (AT&T by mistake on its website, apparently) of their entrants into this relatively new field of tech. Both companies just announced strong fourth-quarter earnings reports, despite big revenue losses from canceled landline service, and some see femtocells as a way for them to get back into the home. Shoddy cell service in your house? Set up a femtocell for guarenteed reception.

The Verizon box, called the Network Extender, goes for $249 and allows up to four phones to be connected at any one time. The one (minor) drawback: you can only make calls – no support for cellular data. Information Week's Eric Zeman calls Verizon out for this apparent snub, but who needs cellular data when you're in your house? If you're savvy enough to set up a femtocell, you probably already have Wi-Fi.

AT&T's "3G Microcell" offers many of the same features as its Verizon competitor, but (as the name would indicate) includes 3G data coverage. The tradeoff here is that it only works with 3G phones.

Besides its lack of data support, Verizon's femtocell has drawn fire because calls carried by it still rack up cellular minutes – even though the calls aren't using the company's towers. DSLReports' Karl Bode put it this way:

That's right, you lose minutes despite the fact you'd be reducing strain on local towers and routing calls (largely) over infrastructure Verizon doesn't own. That's either technical incompetence or maliciousness on the part of Verizon, and is the primary reason that consumers should stay far, far away.

Wireless minutes aside, Verizon's $249 solution manages to steer clear of a monthly fee, where Sprint's Airave costs $99 up front but charges users $10 a month. No details have been released on the AT&T femtocell's pricing structure.


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