Such devices are in common use in some other countries, but Optus has begun what it claims is the first commercial pilot of femtocells in Australia. Dubbed the 3G Home Zone, Optus' femtocell is initially only available in selected areas of Sydney, Wollongong, Central Coast, Brisbane, Gold Coast and the Sunshine Coast. No indication was given of when it might be offered in other places.
The company claims it provides five bars of signal to mobile devices within 30 metres of the Home Zone. Only devices with Optus 3G SIMs can connect to the Home Zone, and Optus officials say up to four devices can be used simultaneously.
Calls or data sessions begun via the Home Zone will handover to available coverage if you move out of range of the Home Zone, but the reverse does not occur.
Possible drawbacks are that a maximum of 12 devices (phones, tablets and wireless broadband modems) can be registered at a time with the Home Zone, and it uses approximately 1GB 350MB [new information from Optus - 12/4/11] of data per month before any calls or data sessions are made. This broadband data usage comes out of your monthly quota even if you are an Optus broadband customer.
There are other shortcomings - see page 2.
Use of a Home Zone is not restricted to Optus broadband customers - it simply requires a minimum download speed of 1Mbps and a minimum upload speed of 256Kbps. Many Optus plans are throttled to 256/256 or 128/128 once the quota is exceeded, and the Home Zone stops functioning if the speed in either direction drops below 128Kbps.
"Australia's first commercial femtocell pilot will provide valuable feedback from our customers on the multiple benefits of this technology," said Optus' consumer marketing director Gavin Williams. "We believe femtocells are an important way of enhancing the customer experience of the Optus Open Network by acting as a wireless gateway into the home or office," he added.
The price of the Home Zone depends on the customer's mobile plan. For prepaid customers, it costs $240.
The price is $180 with a $29 plan, $120 on $49/$59/$69 plans, and $60 on a $79 plan. Non-prepaid customers can spread the price over 12 equal monthly payments.
A femtocell trial involving Optus' enterprise customers is also underway.