Femtocells have been around for at least a couple years, but only now are they becoming mainstream. While femtocells are not necessarily a perfected technology yet, they are certainly convincing wireless carriers that the benefits far outweigh any negatives.
Verizon is one of those carriers that has been convinced. As such, the company with the most wireless subscribers in America has released the Verizon Wireless Network Extender.
Femtocells act as miniature cell towers within the walls of your home or office. They work by connecting them to any available wireless router; customers get much better wireless reception because the femtocell uses WiFi and GPS connections to attach to the network, instead of nearby towers.
This is especially helpful for any customers that live in areas of weak cell signals, or work in buildings that towers have a difficult time penetrating. It’s also helpful to the network because it takes strain and traffic off those towers.
Sprint and T-Mobile have already released similar services, with AT&T also coming out with its MicroCell femtocell solution sometime soon.
I recently had the opportunity to test Verizon’s Network Extender, made by Samsung, and found it to be a pretty interesting experience.
Design of the Verizon Wireless Network Extender
The Extender is a big black box that stands vertically, and is about twice as large as my wireless router. So by no means is it handy and portable. There are three different places to plug something in; power, router/ethernet connector, and a plug for the GPS receiver.
The GPS receiver is removable so that in case you can’t get the Extender to reach a window, you can install the included 23-foot extension cable to help get close enough to a window to pick up a signal. As far as I can tell, the purpose of the GPS is to ensure the device is not being used outside the US (which certainly would’ve been a nice workaround to the expense of international calling) and tracking you down for E911.
One area of design the Extender gets poor marks on is the lack of wireless connectibility. I would’ve preferred to have the Extender hooked up on my main floor for maximum GPS signal instead of the basement, where my router is currently located.
Using the Wireless Extender
I’m the kind of person that loathes reading user manuals, but I had to read it this time. With this being the first time I’ve hooked up a femtocell to my router, it was better to be safe than sorry.
There’s really not much to the setup process, however. Once all the cords are connected it takes around 15 minutes to start working properly. It was a lot easier process than I was expecting, and realized after a few minutes I didn’t even need the manual.
Once connected, I used the Samsung Sway to make some calls. Before the phone started ringing, I heard a double-tone indicating the Sway was connected to the Extender instead of the network.
It is recommended to be within 15 feet of the Extender for it to work well, but I found it to work from a longer distance. I didn’t try going next door to see if I got a signal, but it worked all over the house perfectly. In fact, I could hear a noticeable difference in sound volume and quality when I was using the Extender.
Up to three phones can use the Extender at the same time, with a fourth channel reserved strictly for emergency calls. Any other phones will be redirected to the nearest tower. If you leave the Extender’s range during a call, you will also be redirected to a tower if available. However, the vice versa doesn’t work; you cannot start a call outside range and then pick up the Extender signal during the duration of the same call.
An additional perk of using the Extender over the network is that since it is much closer to your phone than the tower is, much less power is used, thus saving a bit of battery life in the process.
Sadly the Verizon Wireless Network Extender does not support EVDO, so when connected to it you are limited to 1x data speeds if EVDO is not available in your local area.
Overall Impressions of the Extender
It’s nice to see devices like this on the market now. While my area is not hurting for Verizon coverage and thus is not a must-have for me, there are some parts of the country where this could come in very handy.
One other frustration in the use of the device is that you don’t get unlimited calling. It still uses up your regular minutes, even though you’re not using the network specifically. Perhaps this will change over time, but for now, don’t expect this to be a solution to get out of high bills.
We liked the improved cell reception and quality, increased battery life on the phones themselves, and the fact that you don’t have to pay a monthly fee like you do on the phones. We did not like the fact that it lacks wireless accessibility, does not include EVDO, and uses up regular minutes. We were also not fond of the size of the Extender, though we won’t complain too much about that.
If you’re in a area of fringe reception, the Extender is a life-saver, especially if you are in a situation where you need Verizon service for work, mobile-to-mobile calling, or any other reason. It will certainly save a lot of bottled-up frustration due to bad coverage. If, however, you’re in an area that is just fine in cell reception, there’s probably no urgent reason to get it.
The Verizon Wireless Network Extender hardware costs $249 and there is no monthly fee to use it.
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