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Saturday, 06 August 2011 22:30

Review: Optus femtocell, aka 3G Home Zone

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Optus last month became the first mobile operator in Australia to offer femtocells as a full commercial product. Optus promoting them as solution for Optus mobile customers with poor coverage in their homes.

The most significant thing the Sydney Morning Herald could find to say about Optus new femtocell, the 3G Home Zone, launched late last month was that users could be barred from making emergency calls through the device if their broadband service went over quota and had been throttled to less than 128kbps.

That's true. The device won't work on a broadband service at less than 128kbps, but when you go to the Optus web site to register it - which you must do before it can become active - there are clear warnings about this. Still it is somewhat surprising: you would have thought that with all the smarts manufacturer Alcatel-Lucent has build into the device it would be smart enough to detect a slow speed broadband line and shut itself down releasing its 'captured' mobiles to the main Optus network.

Given all the fears about radiation when Optus or anyone else tries to put a base station near a school it might have been more important to question the wisdom of having such a device in your home. Of course it is much lower power than the main base stations but the available information is not entirely reassuring.

The device arrived with a card from Alcatel-Lucent assuring the user that it complies with Australian Radio Communications Standard (Electromagnetic Radiation- Human Exposure) Standard 2003, and adding "this device when in operation requires a minimum of 40cm safety separation from the head of any other part of the body."

Such safety information should be printed on the device, not stuck on a card that is likely to get separated from the device and lost. Had I not read that, and other things being equal, I would have stuck the 3G Home Zone Optus gave me to try on top of my DSL modem router which is only about a metre from my head.

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However there are other locational considerations. The instruction manual advises that ideally it should be placed in a central area of your home and as high as possible. I recall an Optus executive last year saying he had one in his loft. That's the ideal location; high and central and away from people, but getting an ethernet cable and power to such an ideal location might be problematic in many homes.

Anyhow I put it as far away as I could get it without booby-trapping my flat with ethernet cables, followed the instructions, registered it online, plugged it in and powered on. The lights flashed for about half an hour - quite normal according to the instructions - and it then lit up to show that it was registered to the network.

And it didn't work! What should have happened is that calls from the Optus phone whose number I had registered online should have been routed through the device, indicated by three beeps just after dialling the number. Turned out the prepaid SIM Optus had given me to trial it with "hasn't been registered in the back end" according to the Optus tech."

Once that was fixed it worked just fine, except when I tried to call another Optus number. "This is an Optus to Optus call," was all I heard before the ring tones. No beeps, but the unit did take the call as evidenced by the lights on it. Optus explained that they had decided this information was more useful for prepaid customers because such calls don't cost them. However this was not explained in the documentation.

There are also some other undocumented features - one that might be quite useful. In the event you have a home that has a decent DSL service but absolutely zero Optus coverage, you can't use the unit, according to the documentation. It needs some minimal level of network coverage in order to co-ordinate with the main network and become active.

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This is a licensing requirement because Optus does not own all the bands in which it operates everywhere in Australia. However I was told that in a such a situation they could do a manual override and it would work.

Unless you have really bad Optus coverage at home it only starts to look attractive if you are on an Optus contract of a least $59 per month. In that situation it costs $5 per month and the main user gets unlimited calls to standard numbers so long as those go through the unit. A user paying less than $59 per month pays $15 and no free calls.

I'd have thought they could at least have made it $5 if there were more than two or three Optus services registered at the same address. Up to 12 Optus numbers can be registered and four can use it simultaneously, so long as you have at least 512/512kbps on your DSL service.

And on top of that is the cost of running it, which is not easy to work out. There is no information on power consumption supplied with the unit. However a data sheet for a US model I was able to locate said maximum power was less than 10 watts. If it were 10 watts continuous, at the 25 cents per KwH I pay for electricity it would cost just under $2 per month. And I reckon most of those watts are chewed up by the indicator lights, which are ridiculously bright and warm to the touch.

But this is after all just the beginning. Intriguingly, Alcatel-Lucent's product information claims that the unit "provides application programming interfaces (APIs) that enable mobile service providers to leverage unique network capabilities, such as location and presence, to develop new, innovative applications." I couldn't find any more AlcaLu info to flesh this out, so we'll have to wait to see what Optus comes up with.

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