AT&T inches closer towards broad availability of its femtocell: Details of 3G MicroCell, an in-home base station for the AT&T network, have been floating around for months. What wasn't known was when the company was planning to expand its test program into commercial availability. With the launch of a detailed Web site describing all the advantages--but also with a Zip code availability checker--the company is moving far closer to release. (Update: Charlotte, N.C., is the first test market.)
The idea of a femtocell is to have a broadband-connected tiny base station in the home that allows an existing cellular handset to work without any modification. Sprint pairs its femtocell with an unlimited call options ($100 purchase price plus $5/mo for the base station's use and $10 additional/mo for unlimited calls). Verizon offers just the signal-strength improvements ($250). T-Mobile employs UMA, which requires one of many dual-mode UMA handsets that the company offers, but works over plain Wi-Fi.
The 3G MicroCell is unique in that Sprint and Verizon's systems support just 2G voice only. AT&T is a smartphone and calling adjunct, although most smartphones that the company sells include Wi-Fi, and thus the data side isn't very important to most home users. Better call quality and unlimited home calling are the big carrot.
Engadget has a price sheet which shows calling plans at $10/mo (for one or more cellular phones) for existing AT&T wireline customers, and $20/mo for everyone else. The base station is $150 if you want it just for coverage; $50 ($100 rebate) if you sign up for the service plan. (The pricing is apparently a test, too, however.)
That's relatively competitive to Sprint ($15/mo) and T-Mobile ($10/mo), and cheaper than Vonage or Comcast VoIP. Further with VoIP services, you pay per line available; with the AT&T option (as well as Sprint and Verizon) multiple cell phones can place calls at the same time, which gives you a form of multi-line service.
AT&T gets a huge benefit from femtocells, extending its market into homes where its cell service can't reach or reaches poorly, while offloading potentially large amounts of home calling from its network to broadband.