T-Mobile is expanding its 4G reach by crowdsourcing its network

T-Mobile’s customers will soon start helping T-Mo build a better network in the U.S. – though they may not know it. The operator this week unveiled the 4G LTE CellSpot, which is basically a pint-sized cell tower any T-Mobile customer can install in their home or business to get better voice reception and stronger data connections.

Technically the CellSpot is what’s known as a femtocell, and operators have been giving them to customers for years to help address dead spots in homes or offices. Customers plug these femtocells in and all calls and data sessions get routed through their broadband connections back to the operators network. It’s like having a personal base station of your very own.

The Cellspot is a pint-sized base station that connects to T-Mobile through your broadband connection (Image Credit: T-Mobile)

The Cellspot is a pint-sized base station that connects to T-Mobile through your broadband connection (Image Credit: T-Mobile)

There is a key difference between the CellSpot and other femtos, however. The CellSpot isn’t a private base station accessible only to the customer who installs it. It’s a public access femtocell, meaning any T-Mobile customer can connect to a CellSpot just as they would to any of T-Mobile’s outdoor cell towers. As individual customers install these femtos, they’ll be expanding the coverage and capacity of T-Mobile’s voice and 4G networks for the benefit of their fellow T-Mo subscribers. It’s the same concept of crowdsourcing that OpenSignal uses to collect data, but instead of crowdsourcing network information, T-Mobile is crowdsourcing the network itself.

That may sound like a strange concept, but it’s one that has a precedent in the world of Wi-Fi. Fon has been building crowdsourced Wi-Fi networks for years, and operators like BT in the U.K. and Comcast in the U.S. have built extensive hotspot networks on the backs of its customers’ broadband connections.

The CellSpot also follows a trend we’re seeing in 4G: the move toward denser networks. As our hunger for mobile bandwidth grows, operators are deploying more and smaller cells, which in turn increase the overall data capacity of the network. Mostly operators are rolling out these small cells themselves, but T-Mobile US – known for its wily ways – is getting a leg up by enlisting its customers in that rollout. It’s offering a lot of incentive to help out as well. Any customer on one of T-Mo’s core Simple Choice plans can get a CellSpot for free if they put down a $25 deposit (though they’ll be charged $138 if they don’t return the device when they’re done).

The CellSpot could become a very powerful tool for T-Mobile in its ongoing battle against U.S. titans Verizon and AT&T. Imagine if every retail business got a CellSpot to boost T-Mo’s signals in their shops and restaurants. T-Mobile not only would get better coverage in hard-to-reach indoor locations, but all of those new small cells would mean gobs of new 4G capacity. That would translate into faster speeds and better performance for all of its customers in some of the most heavily trafficked places. We’ll see how T-Mobile’s experiment goes (Free Mobile is doing a similar thing in France), but if it proves popular we’ll likely see other operators join in. Crowdsourcing might be the way our future mobile networks get built.

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