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Islands of Britishness

16/8/09

Singapore is a great place, It feels like the whole country is like that new Westfield shopping mall near the BBC in West London. Hundreds of shops all struggling for identity, from Prada to Carphone Warehouse and in the end all feeling heterogeneous. Giving the whole country no identity at all. But one place in Singapore has real identity: the cricket square.

It’s odd being thousands of miles from home and yet watching something as comfortable and exceptionally British as cricket. If I’d walked past in a London park I would have thought nothing of it, but transplanted I stood and watched for a while.

Vodafone has long been associated with cricket, mainly because the senior management enjoyed going to watch and they could make a good business case for spending days at Lords. Sitting next to then Prime Minister, John Major, probably did the company directors no harm either.

And it’s Vodafone which has launched a product that could help you build little islands of Vodafoneness. The Vodafone Access Gateway. This unfortunately acronymic device is a femtocell. A tiny mobile base station which sits on a consumers broadband and provides coverage in a home or office. When Vodafone was lobbying for 1800MHz spectrum they claimed they would use it for in-building, and particularly in-office, coverage. It is however the femtocell which has taken over this role.

A femtocell looks like a router: A small box that sits on the end of your DSL or cable internet connection and allows you to use a phone.  It’s misleading because what a Femtocell looks like and what it does are technologically very different. It’s a small cell, and has the business end inside of what a $200,000 base station houses. So selling it for £160  ($370) is pretty incredible. One of the things a femtocell has to do that a router does not is hand-off.  When you set up a femtocell it has a sniff around for other cells on the same network and integrates with it. A technology demo, not using the Vodafone device, shows you can even have multiple femtocells in a building. Vodafone takes 24 hours to register a femtocell. You have to tell them which phones will use it, strangers walking past your house can’t use the capacity. You have your own little island of coverage.

But what if you take that island somewhere? Vodafone says you need to re-register if you change postcodes, a nice, easy to understand limit. What if you move and don’t tell them? What if you move outside of Vodafone coverage, like to Spain?

The Spanish ex-pat British community is huge. They watch British Sky TV on boxes registered in the UK. With a Vodafone access gateway they could have Vodafone UK coverage in their homes. A bar in Malaga could offer regulars the ability to make and receive calls as though they were in Chingford. The summer Passport promotion might run out at the end of  August, but with your own cell you’d have real UK access – data too.

Of course this isn’t kosher. You don’t have the rights to operate a cell so the femtocell officially belongs to Vodafone who do have an operators licence, but Vodafone doesn’t have any rights to start putting up UK cells in other countries. Vodafone needs to decide how much effort they want to put into safeguarding the revenue of other networks.

Just as a Sky TV box phones home to allow SKY to check the CLI they could put measures in place: they could look for other non-UK networks in the area, or lots of dropped calls as the meshing with UK cells doesn’t happen. Or they could track IP addresses – providing you don’t use a VPN. Some femtocells even have GPS in them to let the operator know where the cell is, but since the answer is always going to be “indoors” GPS is a bit of a red herring and can be spoofed.

It’s going to be an interesting battle between those that want to spend money with Vodafone and Vodafone’s attempts to stop them. How it will pan out for more networks and more users of femtocells remains to be seen. SKY seems to have given up trying too hard. I know of one person who used to route all calls from his SKY box to his UK PABX and then forward the call automatically to SKY and so present a UK CLI. Hackers will always find a way.

Just as the cricket players in Singapore remind us of a time when maps were pink and the sun never set on the British empire, the world of red Vodafone coverage spreads the globe, but there might be some more unofficial red splodges dotted around.

Cat Keynes publishes her thoughts on the mobile phone industry every Sunday at www.catkeynes.com you can read the column  the previous Friday by subscribing here. Follow me on Twitter here.

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