AT&T to test in-home cellphone boosters next year

NEW YORK -- AT&T Inc., the country's largest wireless carrier, is testing a technology that can improve the signal available to cellphones in subscribers' homes, and plans to make it available in a trial market next year.

John Stankey, chief executive of AT&T's Operations division, said Tuesday that the company is testing so-called "femtocells" in employees' homes, and is looking at a broader, city-sized test with customers in the second quarter.

Femtocells are small boxes that beam low-power wireless signals to cellphones and relay signals back to the carrier through the subscriber's high-speed Internet connection. In essence, they're miniature cellular towers for the home.

"We're really excited about this," Stankey told investors and analysts at a conference organized by UBS. "I don't know how you compete in the voice space with someone who has a pristine voice connection in the home through a femtocell."

Competitor Sprint Nextel Corp. launched femtocells under the Airave brand last year in a few markets, and made them available nationally this summer. Verizon Wireless has said it is looking at femtocells. T-Mobile USA has chosen a different route, selling some phones that can connect calls over Wi-Fi routers.

Sprint's femtocells are for voice and low-speed data connections, but Stankey said Dallas-based AT&T is looking at femtocells that provide full cellular broadband, or "3G" speeds.

While interest is high from carriers, widespread femtocell deployments have been hampered by the difficulty of getting the signals to mesh properly with signals from regular cellular towers.