Sprint's new Airave femtocell to get 3G

Home cellular base stations are about to get a lot more useful and available in the U.S., with Sprint Nextel preparing to join AT&T and possibly Verizon Wireless in offering a femtocell that delivers 3G data speeds.

Sprint, the third-largest carrier in the country, is getting ready to sell a new, faster version of its Airave device, according to documents filed with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission. It's switching to a new hardware vendor, adding a radio for the EV-DO (Evolution-Data Optimized) 3G service and including a port for landline VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) service, according to the documents at the FCC that were originally uncovered by Engadget.

Femtocells are cellular radios, about the size of a Wi-Fi router, that can be installed in homes and offices and connected to fixed-line broadband connections for access to wired networks. They can improve subscribers' indoor coverage while saving the mobile operator money on cell towers, wired backhaul links and other expensive network infrastructure. Carriers offer them with a variety of prices and service plans.

The current Airave only provides coverage on Sprint's CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) 1x network, with speeds around 150K bps (bits per second) or less. To get on the EV-DO network, which delivers several times that performance, Airave users have to rely on Sprint's regular outdoor network. Yet these customers are unlikely to have good access to the main network, because achieving better coverage at home is the key reason for installing a femtocell in the first place.

The country's two biggest carriers have already revealed plans to offer 3G femtocells. AT&T said last month it would roll out its 3G Microcell throughout its continental U.S. service area over the next several months. Verizon, like Sprint, currently offers a Samsung base station with only CDMA 1x capability. But at the Consumer Electronics Show early this year, Samsung showed off a 3G base station bearing Verizon's logo and said the device would be available in the second quarter, according to media reports. A Verizon spokesman said he did not recall that introduction.

In addition to delivering 3G coverage, the next Airave will have a port that could be used for plugging in a landline phone and accessing a VoIP service, according to the FCC documents. With this port, the femtocell could act as an ATA (analog terminal adapter), the type of device used for most fixed-line VoIP services that use the subscriber's own broadband to carry calls. The Airave's user manual describes procedures for using the VoIP port but doesn't refer to the Sprint brand in relation to a VoIP service.

As a femtocell, the device can carry as many as six simultaneous voice calls or a combination of voice and data sessions, according to the manual. For data, it can offer 3M bps downstream and 1.8M bps upstream, as long as the subscriber's own wired broadband has that much capacity, the manual said.

The device Sprint described is made by Airvana, a specialist in femtocells, instead of Samsung, which makes the carrier's current Airave as well as the upcoming Verizon 3G product. AT&T's 3G MicroCell, which uses a different type of 3G network, is built by Cisco using femtocell technology from IP.access.

The FCC documents don't shed any light on possible new pricing models for the Airave. Today, Sprint charges $99.99 for the device, plus an "Enhanced Coverage Charge" of $4.99 per month. There are also optional unlimited calling plans for the Airave, priced at $10 per month for a single phone or $20 per month for multiple phones sharing the Airave.

In a statement, Sprint said it could not comment on the development of specific products or services.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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