Although it’s common within the telecommunications industry, this term hasn’t yet made much impact on the wider world. That’s about to change.
A femtocell is a mobile-telephone base station in the home that’s connected to your broadband internet service. The idea is to give subscribers a better signal and faster data access, because buildings, especially in cities, can block the wireless signal or reduce its quality. As the mobile phone is often the first point of contact for friends and family, many people would prefer to maintain it as their main phone but poor indoors reception often makes this difficult. Other benefits being touted are that your phone will only have to operate at very low signal levels, so extending battery life, limiting the risk of adverse health effects and preventing interference with other electrical equipment. The phone companies hope that femtocells will encourage people to use the high-speed data services that have been introduced at huge cost and will help to draw users away from their competitors, the fixed-line telecoms operators. Products are appearing at trade shows but have yet to go on retail sale.
The word is taken loosely and figuratively from femto-, the metric prefix that means 10-15 or a quadrillionth (a million billionth) of some unit (it’s from the Danish or Norwegian femten, fifteen), plus cell, the standard name for a single mobile telephone coverage area, whose name was borrowed from the idea of a cell in a honeycomb. It’s the logical next member of a series of terms that have been created by telecoms engineers for equipment with different coverage areas, including macrocell, minicell, microcell and picocell (from the prefix meaning one thousand billionth or 10-12, based on Spanish pico, a little bit). Unlike these others, which remain industry jargon, the direct impact of femtocell on the public means it is going to achieve much greater visibility in the language. The term is already being abbreviated to femto in the telecoms business.
For femtocell technology to achieve the kind of growth in service use and data consumption operators hope, it needs to be more than just niche take-up. But getting the cost per unit low enough to facilitate the firing of femtocells into scores of homes may require carriers to subsidise the hardware — which of course would come at a cost.
Business Week, 29 Feb. 2008
Hooked up to a home’s broadband-internet connection, femtocells provide solid indoor coverage and allow residents to make cheap calls using their existing handsets. Leave the house while chatting, and your call is automatically handed over to the wider mobile-phone network.
Economist, 14 Feb. 2008