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In-Home Cellular Boosters Get Boost

New York — Wi-EX and Samsung have announced products that boost indoor cellular coverage, each in markedly different ways.

Atlanta-based Wi-EX has unveiled a pair of indoor cellular-signal boosters, and Samsung has unveiled Ubicell-branded femtocells, which are essentially low-power cell sites scaled down to book size. One of Samsung’s Ubicells will be available through Sprint Nextel later this year, Samsung said.

Both types of devices can be installed by consumers in their homes, and both improve indoor cellular coverage to reduce the potential for dropped or missed calls from interior locations where cellular signal strength is low. The improved coverage also extends a phone’s battery life.

Femtocells, however, are designed as much to reduce congestion on a carrier’s network as they are to improve in-door coverage, and they will be sold only through cellular carriers. They work like this:

A 50-milliwatt in-home femtocell communicates via cellular spectrum to a cellphone within a 5,000-square-foot area. Within that range, a cellular conversation is routed over an Ethernet-connected broadband modem, traveling via the Internet to a carrier-operated “soft switch” designed by Samsung. The conversation isn’t converted to the VoIP protocol but is converted to a different standard that enables cellular-format voice streams to travel over the Internet.

If the cellphone user walks out of femtocell range, the carrier’s soft switch automatically hands the call off to the carrier’s nearest cellular tower. Likewise, calls are handed off from cellular tower to the femtocell when a user walks within range.

Only registered handsets will be able to use a particular femtocell, which takes its name from the scientific term for one quadrillionth. Femtocells have lower range than picocells (a trillionth) and microcells (a millionth), which are intended to improve coverage in public places such as train stations, malls and the like.

Femtocell technology competes with Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA) technology, which offers the advantages of femtocells but requires the use of a Wi-Fi-equipped cellphone to place wireless calls through a Wi-Fi-equipped broadband modem from inside the house.

Samsung plans to launch an 850/1,900MHz CDMA 1x EV-DO femtocell through Sprint before the end of the year. It can be used for both voice and data transmission.

Wi-EX’s zBoost solutions improve interior signal coverage but don’t offer automatic hand-off from the in-home base station to a cellular tower. They also don’t require phones to be registered to take advantage of the signal boost.

Typical zBoost signal boosters increase indoor signal coverage up to 2,500 square feet and consist of an antenna, base unit, coax cable and mounting bracket. The antenna may be installed inside, near a window, or any place that there is a strong cellphone signal. For best reception, the antenna can be installed in the attic or outside. The antenna connects to the base station via coax cable.

These solutions typically retail for $299 and up, but Wi-EX is bringing down the price of in-door cellular-signal boosters to $99 with the launch of a low-power version intended for single users in small spaces and for on-the-go use in hotel rooms. The device, called zBoost zP, is available in a $99 version and a $149 version.

Each zP version features a small base station that sits near or hangs on the window. The $149 version comes with a 20-foot cable that connects the base station to a small indoor antenna that transmits the cellular signal to a cellphone that’s within a 6-foot to 12-foot radius. With the $99 version, the 20-foot cable must be coupled directly to the phone.

The zP, like the top-end $399 zBoost, operates in both the 800MHz and 1,900MHz bands so it can be used with any CDMA or GSM carriers’ phones. That includes phones from carriers whose networks operate in both bands and hand-off voice calls from one band to another depending on signal strength. In addition, zP and zBoost work with phones from carriers that deliver voice on one band and data on another.

The zP, however, is designed for single users, whereas Wi-Ex’s other models can handle multiple calls simultaneously.