Sprint quietly sells 3G femtocell, Verizon set to follow

Sprint's first femtocell to extend the EV-DO network into homes and offices is not being offered to all subscribers

U.S. carriers with EV-DO mobile data networks are stepping up their coverage game with femtocells that offer extended coverage for the high-speed network, after long offering units that worked only with the slower CDMA2000-1x system.

Sprint Nextel quietly began offering an EV-DO femtocell to selected customers about two weeks ago, and Verizon Wireless confirmed on Monday it will offer one "in the coming months."

Femtocells are small cellular base stations that provide coverage around a home or office and connect to the Internet via the subscriber's own broadband service. AT&T already offers a version of its MicroCell femtocell that supports its 3G network. Sprint and Verizon, which use CDMA (Code-Division Multiple Access) networks, have been selling femtocells that use their original "1x" networks, which typically go slower than 200K bps (bits per second), but not for the EV-DO (Evolution-Data Optimized) system, which is several times faster.

Sprint is now offering a new version of its femtocell, the Airave Access Point, that includes EV-DO Revision A. Sprint says that network runs as fast as 1.4M bps downstream and 500K bps upstream.

However, the new Airave is not available to all subscribers. Sprint is evaluating customers' needs case by case and only providing the device to those that the carrier believes need it, according to Sprint spokesman Mark Elliott. Device pricing and monthly fees are also being determined case by case, Elliott said. The coverage problems of different subscribers can be caused by various factors, such as a home's construction materials, and are not always Sprint's fault, he said. Elliott declined to say whether Sprint plans to make the new device generally available.

The EV-DO Airave provides coverage for about 5,000 square feet (465 square meters) around it, and as many as six people at a time can use the device. Though documents filed to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission earlier this year indicated the new Airave would include a port for plugging a wired home phone into a VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) service, Elliott said no such service is offered for the device.

Sprint's current Airave is still available through its regular retail channels, priced at US$99.99, with a $4.99 per month Enhanced Coverage Charge. Two unlimited-call plans are offered for the device, priced at $10 for one phone and $20 for multiple phones.

Verizon, the nation's largest carrier, said at the International Consumer Electronics Show in January that it would introduce an EV-DO femtocell in the second quarter of this year. The company did not do so, but it plans to sell an EV-DO version of its Network Extender femtocell in the coming months, Verizon spokesman Thomas Pica said. The current Network Extender costs $149.99 after a $100 mail-in rebate and does not require a special monthly charge.

Additional reporting by Nancy Gohring in Seattle.

This story, "Sprint quietly sells 3G femtocell, Verizon set to follow" was originally published by IDG News Service .

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