Q&A: What is Femtocell Technology?

Femtocell is the technology used in Optus’s new Home Zone, which has been designed to bolster the signal of your 3G Optus-enabled smartphone. It is suitable for regional Australia, or areas where a signal is poor and needs a boost. One of the companies at the forefront of developing the technology was Alcatel-Lucent Australia. We spoke with Jason Leung, the company’s Wireless Access Director.

What does the Home Zone have under its lid that helps boost the signal?
The 3G Home Zone is a very low power 3G mobile base station and has the same functions as the mobile phone tower with added intelligence. In effect, the 3G Home Zone allows you to get your 3G handset closer to the mobile base station (the 3G Home Zone device) and therefore the network signal. As a result, your handset will show this as a much stronger signal.

How far from home can it be used. I’ve heard that it can only used in the home, and that if you go outside your front gate it is ineffective?
The 3G Home Zone is designed to provide coverage within a 30m radius from the small cell device. If you move outside that area, your handset will automatically reselect onto the available Optus mobile network. If you are in a call, the call will automatically hand over to the Optus mobile network without interruption.

We were/are under the impression that it helps boost the mobile phone signal within the home, but one of our radio listeners was told by Optus that if the mobile phone signal is weak than it will not help much. What is the real story?
The 3G Home Zone device is not a repeater. It is a stand-alone low power 3G mobile base station for the home and as such does not rely on the strength of macro 3G network. In fact, if you have weak network coverage, the 3G Home Zone is a perfect solution to get a strong signal around your home.

Are you developing this technology for other telcos, too?
Alcatel-Lucent already has 25 commercial contracts and more than 20 trials with network operators around the world based on the femtocell technology underpinning Optus 3G Home Zone. Globally, we provide the same type of solution to Vodafone. Other operators in the US, Europe and Asia are also rolling out our solutions.

Could similar technology help boost wifi internet in the future especially for regional Australians. As far as I’m aware this is designed for 3G enabled mobile phones.
The femto-based small cell device being used for 3G Home Zone is a miniature base station operating in licensed 3G spectrum (2.1GHz) while a wifi Access Point is a miniature base station operating in unlicensed 2.4GHz spectrum. Already, there are higher power and higher capacity femto-based small cells for use in public hotspots. In future, we may also see devices that combine the 3G femto-based small cell and the WIFI Access Point in the one device.