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Verizon Wireless to improve indoor cell coverage

Company expects to introduce so-called femtocell technology early next year to help subscribers who get poor cell phone reception at home or in the office.

Verizon Wireless subscribers who get spotty cell phone coverage at home or in the office could soon have a solution as the company rolls out a new service that will improve indoor coverage.

A Verizon Wireless spokesman confirmed a story on the Web site Unstrung that stated the company expects to introduce its first femtocell product early next year. Femtocells are compact wireless base stations that boost cellular signals indoors to provide enhanced coverage up to 5,000 square feet. A single device can typically handle up to three calls at a time.

The way the device works is that it boosts the cellular signal indoors so that multiple phones can make and receive phone calls or send and receive data. The device then connects to a broadband connection to send the call over the Internet. This means that cell phone signals can be boosted indoors in a house or office that typically doesn't get good cell phone reception.

But boosting your cell signal isn't cheap.

Sprint Nextel started selling its femtocell product called Airave nationwide in August. The actual femtocell radio, which looks like a broadband router, sells for $99.99. Subscribers must also pay a monthly fee of $4.99 for the "enhanced coverage." And then they either pay $10 a month for unlimited calls for a single line or $20 a month for unlimited calls on multiple phones.

The good news is that when using the femtocell, Sprint customers are not using any of their monthly minutes. So this might allow people to scale down to a lower cost cell phone plan.

Details of a Verizon femtocell haven't been announced yet. All the company has said so far is that it's testing the technology, and it could have a product ready by early next year. But the company is not talking publicly about pricing or availability.

Femtocell services are similar to a service offered by T-Mobile called HotSpot @Home. The main difference is that T-Mobile's service uses unlicensed Wi-Fi signals indoors to transmit calls between handsets and routers. Femtocells use licensed cellular spectrum to connect calls between handsets and the home radio/router. This means that T-Mobile HotSpot @Home users have to use a special phone that switches between Wi-Fi and the cellular network, whereas subscribers using a femtocell solution can use their regular cell phones.

That said, HotSpot @Home and femtocell services are a very cost-effective way for cell phone operators to transmit phone calls, because they help the carriers preserve capacity on their licensed spectrum. And because these services help reduce the amount of traffic traversing the cellular network, they could potentially improve overall quality of the entire network by reducing congestion.

When you look at it this way, the cell phone operators shouldn't actually be charging customers an extra fee to use these services. They should be giving it away for free in exchange for making their networks more efficient.