Femtocells aren’t new. For the past few years, they have trickled out onto Verizon Wireless, AT&T and Sprint using various names, and while they’re perfect for those who have subpar cellphone coverage in their own home, they aren’t great for avid travelers dealing with international roaming. If you’re unfamiliar with the technology, it works as such: a femtocell is a miniature cell tower, of sorts, which connects to your home broadband Internet connection. This basically creates a cell tower in your home, and it routes your calls out through the Internet instead of via the nearest “real” tower.
Unfortunately, all of the US carriers have locked their femtocells to work only in America, and even when you change locations domestically, most require you to update your address in your online profile before it can work elsewhere. There’s a GPS beacon attached to all of them, which works as the ball-and-chain for travelers. The ultimate femtocell would be the one that you could take anywhere, and plug into any Internet connection, in order to have five bars of local cell service anywhere in the world. It would all but eliminate roaming fees while you were chatting in your overseas office or hotel room. But wouldn’t it be even nicer if you could take that idea, and make it mobile? That’s exactly what Ubiquisys is doing with its newest product, the Attocell. Read on for more details.This USB dongle is considered a “personal femtocell,” cramming the technology that’s usually found in a router-sized box into a single USB adapter. The setup couldn’t be simpler: plug the Attocell into a laptop that has an Internet connection (for example, this would work through a laptop out in a French coffee shop with Wi-Fi freely available), and then use the connection it creates to make a phone call via the web. It’s sort of like Skype, except you’re using your actual phone number, which is far more convenient.
The company hasn’t coughed up pricing or availability details yet, but should do so next month with a formal unveiling at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. We’re told that a number of carrier talks are already in progress, but we have to worry about what fees (if any) will be tacked on. The ultimate goal would be to buy this adapter and then use it without limits for free, but it’s unclear if the carriers involved would let that fly. If they charge too much, it will end up simpler to just make a call while roaming, but we’re crossing our fingers that it won’t go down like that. This could very well be the answer to a lot of prayers from those who travel overseas routinely and have to swallow massive roaming bills each time they return.