America now has more femtocells than real cells, with 350,000 Americans now happily supplying free backhaul to their beloved network operators.
That compares to 256,000 real base stations, according to the latest femtocell figures from Informa who expect US femtocells to hit half a million by next March as operators realise it's cheaper getting customers to build the network than trying to do it themselves.
Femtocells are tiny base stations that the customer plugs into their own broadband internet access. The femtocell configures itself into under-utilised frequency (within the block owned by the network operator) and provides the customer with coverage inside their home. These mini-base stations are very attractive to network operators; without them the operators would have to build a proper base station, and pay to have all that traffic delivered to their networks.
When femtocells were first mooted, it was assumed that network operators would have to offer some sort of incentive before customers would agree to pay for bandwidth twice - once to the network operator, once to their ISP - but bundled data allowances are so big these days that no one seems to care and operators are enjoying the free ride.
Not that femtocells are a perfect technology - handoff from the femtocell to the macro network is iffy, and the reverse simply doesn't happen, but that's only a problem if one is talking on the phone while entering or leaving the femtocell's range.
Things aren't perfect for the operator either: Vodafone's Sure Signal (currently the only UK femtocell offering) is still not as reliable as users might expect. Accepting connections from the public internet into the private cellular network has proved surprisingly complicated, and it seems that complexity has put O2 off the idea entirely, despite running lengthy trials.
But in the US, coverage is more of an issue, so femtocells are popping up everywhere. Spider Cloud, which provides femtocell technology for enterprise users, reckons rogue femtos are replacing Wi-Fi hotspots as the latest headache for systems administrators. Office workers are bringing in their own access points, and departments are buying off-the-shelf femtos, so even someone walking across the office can experience a failed handoff (a problem, needless to say, that Spider Cloud can solve).
Given the unexpected enthusiasm of customers to subsidise their own operators, femtocells are now part of a modern operators' deployment plans, and will be central to 4G rollouts - there are even plans to address the handoff issue, eventually. ®