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Vodafone 'looking into' 3G femtocells

The company has become the latest operator to reveal it is investigating technology designed to improve 3G coverage indoors.

Wireless carrier Vodafone Group is testing femtocell technology, which uses mini base stations in homes and small offices to improve indoor 3G coverage.

The larger version of this concept is the picocell, which is already an established technology for ensuring 2G/GSM coverage in corporate settings. Femtocells, however, are designed to improve 3G mobile-broadband coverage by rerouting data use off the operators' cellular networks and onto wired DSL connections where possible. As mobile-Internet usage grows in popularity, such an approach has great appeal for operators worrying about the strain on their 3G network capacity.

An article in The (London) Times on Thursday claimed that Vodafone was "considering products from (femtocell) suppliers such as Ubiquisys." Speaking to ZDNet UK on Friday, the founder and chief technology officer of Ubiquisys, Will Franks, said he could not confirm or deny the report.

Analyst Andrew Parkin-White, from the firm Analysys, a U.K.-based telecommunications consultancy, said in a statement on Friday that Vodafone's femtocell trials "will help to resolve the technical issues associated with large-scale femtocell deployment, and allow the operator to evaluate a number of commercial options for femtocells."

"If there is a time to take a serious look at femtocells in the context of an overall evolving 3G architecture, that time is now," said Parkin-White.

A spokesperson for Vodafone said on Friday that Vodafone had said only that it was "looking into the technology," and had no fixed plans for its deployment. "While there are obvious potential advantages, such as enhanced indoor coverage and DSL as backhaul, there are still technical areas we need to make sure are right," the spokesperson told ZDNet UK. "We haven't made any announcements as such. As we do with any embryonic technology, we are exploring it.”

Femtocell technology has attracted significant interest and investment in the last six months. T-Mobile recently announced its own trials, while Cisco Systems bought an undisclosed stake this week in the U.K. femtocell supplier IP.access. Ubiquisys, also a U.K. company, received an undisclosed investment from Google in July 2007.

The technology can be delivered to customers in standalone units, although the more cost-effective method is likely to be through integration with wireless routers and set-top boxes.

David Meyer of ZDNet UK reported from London.