From the Inside: When is a Booster not a Booster?

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Sometimes even industry experts can get it wrong. In July, a Mobile Wireless article talked about Vodafone’s work to connect rural communities. The sticking point for us was this line: “The operator installs a range of signal boosters across a town, using open femto technology.”

It’s a common enough mistake. The fact is, both tools improve cellular coverage. But the reality is signal boosters and femtocells are not the same thing. They use different technologies that serve different scenarios and the language used to describe them should not be interchangeable.

Femtocells (or microcells in the case of AT&T) are tiny cell sites, also known a base stations (enterprise-grade femtocells are also generally described as small cells). Femtocells are connected to the core network via a modem, which means there has to be a broadband connection in place to make it work. Since femtocells use this broadband connection to provide the connection back to the cellular core, the data rates on the cellular devices served are limited by the speed of the broadband connection used. In addition, with most femtocell deployments, the user has to log into a database and proactively register mobile devices that use it. If you don’t register a mobile device, it won’t benefit from the coverage provided by the femtocell. It is also worth noting that there is a limit to the number of users that can access the femtocell at the same time.

Unlike femtocells, signal boosters leverage the mobile network to enhance existing signals, so they don’t need a broadband connection to work. In the case of a smart signal booster like Cel-Fi, it’s not only a simple plug-and-play proposition (no cables/connections needed), it has the built-in intelligence to optimize a signal within a coverage area. Because it is carrier-specific, it also delivers more gain and capacity than broad-spectrum boosters. Plus, with a signal booster like Cel-Fi, as long as users are on the same carrier network, they will automatically see a stronger cellular signal on their handset without having to register their devices. Unlike femtocells, there is no fixed limit to the number of users that can benefit from the increased coverage provided by a signal booster.

While both technologies do improve cellular coverage, there are a few points to consider when deciding which is the best option to address your particular need. Femtocells are a great choice in areas where there is a broadband connection but absolutely no cell reception. However, if you can get at least one bar of signal coverage on your handset, then a smart signal booster may be the best option.

To muddy the waters just a little though, there are some situations where both of these technologies can be used together. For example, a business may be using enterprise-class femtocells to improve both cellular capacity and coverage in their office but finds there is still poor reception in the mailroom located in the basement. The cost of installing a dedicated femtocell in just one area can be high, but a plug-and-play smart signal booster can be used to relay the signal from the femtocell and address any coverage gaps at a much lower cost. So you can see why it can all be confusing….

What’s your take on femtocell vs. signal boosters?

From the Inside by George Lamb, VP Operations and Support

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