TMO Femtocell

Today there was an article in FierceBroadbandWireless on T-Mobile’s release of a 3G/WiFi “docking station” for the 3G modem. BTW, this is not T-Mobile USA, although I can imagine it would be a good offering for TMO USA sometime during the buildout of their 3G network.

The 3G/WiFi docking station is effectively an 802.11 access point with a 3G backhaul. There are a couple of references to it in the article as “femtocell-like”. I think this is a good characterization although it’s not the classical femtocell which is instead a 3G/cellular front access for phones and mobile broadband equipped laptops and a wired backhaul (typically over the end-users home broadband access lines…backhaul subsidies NOT provided by the operator).

The TMO docking station concept makes sense for 2 reasons. The first is it offers a “migration strategy” for non-3G adoptive users. My wife would not conceive of having a full time mobile broadband account for her own use. But she and I being able to share one makes a lot of sense from an economic perspective. We can both share the 3G backhaul if we did not already have wired broadband service at home, thereby not requiring mobile broadband accounts or multiple of each others devices needing a dedicated mobile broadband data plan. The competition against home DSL or cable broadband is along the lines of what some Clearwire users are doing here in the US. They have a WiMax modem in their home for wireless broadband connectivity, but apparently also take with them to other locations outside the home to re-use the same WiMax data plan rather than dealing with a plethora of one-off WiFi hotspots around their areas. Makes total sense to me.

The second is that it enables many WiFi-equipped devices to connect over a wireless WAN link for connectivity to networks and content. One example is my digital camera has an Eye-Fi wireless SD memory card with an embedded 802.11 radio. This enables me to take a picture and immediately have the pictures uploaded to my Snapfish, Flickr, Picassa, or whatever picture sharing site that has available APIs to the Eye-Fi cloud service. When I’m on the road, I perform this with a similar device to the TMO docking station called a PHS (personal hotspot) from a company called Cradlepoint. They have a unit with an internal battery that takes any of my 3G mobile broadband USB modems to have an instant connected hotspot wherever I am. In my case, it’s to quickly upload and share the pictures that I’ve taken with my digital camera. There would be many other devices that may take a while, if ever, to have 3G embedded radios.

The notion of a 3G router access point has been around for a long time. There are 2 things needed to enable this concept to take off faster than it is today. One is to have an insanely simple experience of activation to the mobile broadband network and subsequent connectivity of the WiFi devices to the 3G router. The second item is an economically compelling value proposition from the carriers to the users. For example, rather than trying to force fit a $40-55 a month plan for each device, incent the user to use the 3G router and pay a base $40 a month for the data plan (including up to 2 devices or 2 users) with each additional device/user connected for $3-5 per month extra. I would argue that if done properly from a technical and marketing perspective, this would be very attractive to several segments of the mass market (business travels, students, young professionals, vertical applications, prosumers/SMBs, etc.).

Good call, TMO! Now when will it be available in the US for some of us to kick the tires?


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