Netgear has signed up to make a 3G "femtocell" gateway, that will include a DSL modem, Wi-Fi and VoIP ports, designed to give users better coverage and cheap calls while indoors.

Netgear will build Zonegate, a femtocell announced in September 2006 by Ubiquisys, into home wireless gateways, which will be available by the end of 2007, and which Netgear hopes to provide to operators in 2008.

"Netgear represent an ideal partner," said Will Franks, chief technology officer and co-founder of Ubiquisys. "It has a respected consumer brand, and strong relationships with mobile operators and carriers. It is already a mass market consumer home gateway manufacturer, shipping millions of competitively-priced devices every year."

Mobile operators have not announced femtocell plans publicly, but are believed to be considering femtocells as an alternative to Wi-Fi for indoor coverage. Like voice over Wi-Fi, they use the Internet to connect calls, but operators may favour them because they use the operator's licensed 3G spectrum, indoors and at low power, to link to the handset. This gives the user better battery life and a cheaper handset, and gives the operator more control.

Femtocells will require a SIM card. As they will most likely be offered as part of a 3G package by operators, they must be as affordable as possible - with Franks predicting a price of €130 to €150.

Under current mobile plans, this would be added to the existing phone subsidy, but the operator could used the device to offer more services - the bundle would probably include the broadband, as well as multiple fixed geographical numbers, provided on conventional fixed or DECT phones plugged into the gateway's VoIP ports.

"The femtocell takes the mobile phone and bonds it to the home netwok as an IP device," said Franks. "There's a potential for media from anywhere in the home to be downloaded and synched and controlled from anywhere in the home," he said, though he wasn't specific about whether this meant watching TV on the mobile, or using it as a super remote control.

"Femtocells will be locked to an operator, at least at first," said Franks. "Ultimately, though, they want to get the cost as low as possible, and to get away from subsidies." There could eventually be SIM-free femtos on the shelves of shops, he said.

The first adopters may be those already selling a UMA-based service which uses Wi-Fi for the in-building service, such as Orange in France and BT in the UK, said Franks. Having solved the issues of tariffing, provisioning and support for emergency services under UMA, the switch from Wi-Fi to 3G would be a small matter, he said: "For an operator who's done UMA, femtocells are easy."

A recent study from ABI Research predicts 152 million people round the world will be using 36 million femtocells by 2012: "Femtocells offer mobile service providers the opportunity to address fixed mobile convergence markets with a highly attractive and efficient solution," said Stuart Carlaw, ABI Research principal analyst.

The two companies will discuss their plans further at the International Conference on Home Access Points and Femtocells in London next week.