Here's a great deal for you if you're a Verizon Wireless customer: Pay $250 to the company to buy a mini cellular base station, called a femtocell. Install it in your home by attaching it to a broadband modem. And then get better coverage in your house: Your existing cell phone suddenly works in corners it never did before.
What's wrong with that? Verizon also wants to use your base station and your broadband to help their other customers get better reception, too. That doesn't sound entirely fair to me, and Verizon's competitors may have better deals.
A femtocell uses licensed frequencies that the carriers have obtained exclusive rights to on a geographic basis. Your regular cell phone connects to the femtocell using any available sets of frequencies (or "channels") the carrier has licensed in your area, and then the femtocell sends the voice data bits over your broadband connection.
Femtocells are the latest way that cellular carriers are trying to help their customers cut the cord and get rid of a wired landline, in favor of using a cellular phone everywhere. Last year, surveys indicated that about a third of households (representing about 70 million Americans) are giving up on landlines, split between those who have no wired phone service at home or who rarely or never use a landline that they have.
Coverage inside homes and apartment buildings has always been problematic, and the carriers think that pushing further inside with what's essentially a broadband-backed signal repeater is the solution.
Verizon started offering its femtocell just today, following in the heels of Sprint Nextel, which released its Airave extender last year, and T-Mobile, which provides a different kind of technology (unlicensed mobile access or UMA), and launched their service in Washington way back in 2006. AT&T is expected to add such service soon, too. (T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless both operate out of the east side. Sprint Nextel just created a spinoff with Clearwire for wireless broadband that's based in Kirkland.)
The difference is that Sprint and T-Mobile pair an in-home cell extender with unlimited U.S. calling. Pay T-Mobile $10 more per month, and you can make thousands upon thousands of additional minutes of calls on 1 to 4 lines on the same plan. Sprint charges $10 per month for one line or $20 per month for a multi-line account. (A minimum voice plan of $40 for an individual or $50 for a family plan is required.)
Verizon isn't going this route. They've decided, apparently, to leverage call quality as the big issue—which is odd, given how much effort they've put into building what is arguably the best cellular voice network in the U.S., and advertising the hell out of that fact.
Femtocells are far more expensive than Wi-Fi routers and broadband modems, and it's taken years to get them from the lab into people's homes. A femtocell costs several hundred dollars, and even Verizon's $250 price is likely subsidized. Sprint charges $100 for theirs and then $5 per month for use. A Wi-Fi router, by contrast, costs about $20 to $100; T-Mobile offers a Wi-Fi router with special voice features for $50 as part of a contract.
Because you are paying for the broadband that carries voice, the carriers get more of your money at a much lower cost. That's why T-Mobile and Sprint are willing to discount their calling with the unlimited plans they pair with this. (T-Mobile includes hotspot calling at a network of their own and roaming partners in their unlimited deal, too.)
Verizon does offer (and Sprint too) a way to register specific phone numbers that are allowed to use your femtocell, but that's an option you have to set and manage, not a default setup process. You can add up to 50 numbers to an authorized list. (T-Mobile relies on Wi-Fi security: if you enable such security, only phones with your network password can get on to place calls.)
Even worse, Verizon reserves the right to let "unauthorized" callers use your broadband connection even when you've set up your network to disallow anyone else. The manual for their network extender says (on page 7):
"If a handoff to the nearest compatible cell tower is not possible and all channels are not in use, one channel may be available for an unauthorized user to access. Callers on the managed access list are always given priority access to the Network Extender."
Up to 3 calls can be made simultaneously, so unless you've occupied all 3 "channels," other people can always be making a call on your network. So much for "unauthorized"! Sprint's FAQ on Airwave says that unauthorized means unauthorized. (Verizon's the same company that once used "unlimited" to mean "highly restricted," until they agreed to stop using that word and pay a variety of fees and refunds after an investigation by the New York attorney general's office.)
Don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with getter a better cellular signal in your house. But Verizon seems to have three losing propositions: No better deal, only a large upfront cost, and no one to prevent all others from using your bandwidth. Check out Sprint and T-Mobile instead.