AT&T announced the availability of its new "3G MicroCell" device in the U.S. this week. It does something fairly simple, frankly self-evident: you hook it up to your broadband connection and it acts as a mobile phone mast in your home or office, offering excellent coverage in an approximately 40-foot radius. Anyone with an AT&T mobile phone in range of the MicroCell that makes or receives a call will have it routed via your broadband connection. Verizon and Sprint have similar devices on the market, but this is the first UMTS-compatible femtocell to hit the market from a major carrier, with carriers in the rest of the world are sure to follow soon.
This kind of device appeals to me; I was recently forced to install a landline in my house because of poor mobile reception, but as I've complained of before, this just leads to hassle. If I had a penny for every time I've said "I can't hear you very well, call me back on my landline" the past few weeks, I could probably afford to check my voicemail while roaming. If I was living in the States I could get Google Voice and have one number for both my mobile and my landline but unfortunately Google Voice won't be coming to anywhere outside the U.S. any time soon because people outside the U.S. aren't used to paying for incoming calls and text messages.
However, what really got me is that AT&T is actually charging you for the use of this device. It costs $150 to buy, and you are essentially letting AT&T use your broadband connection to extend its network (not just for you; any nearby AT&T customer can route their calls through your femtocell). You also have the option of paying $20 a month to get unlimited calls while in range of the femtocell - but other people still get to share your broadband connection whenever they happen to pass by your house.
Femtocells are one way to achieve what I've been calling for in this blog for ages, i.e. to allow third parties to extend mobile coverage to areas where there is none instead of waiting for the major carriers to put up a mast nearby. In my view, AT&T should be paying you for using your bandwidth, not the other way around. Not only would this compensate you for when a random passer-by starts using his (up to 3.6Mbps) 3G data service to gobble up your bandwidth, it would also offer an incentive for enterprising companies to get an Internet connection and stick a femtocell (or a bigger device with slightly larger range) on the end of it to places where there is demand for mobile service. AT&T gets more calls and customers, the participating companies get a share of the connection fees, and suddenly there's a market - and an incentive - for truly ubiquitous coverage.
Somebody who works at a major carrier has to make the conceptual leap sooner or later. I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop.