Vodafone has become the first mobile operator in Europe to launch a commercial femtocell offering, after announcing a plug-in box for UK customers that will boost indoor 3G signals, as well as offload traffic from the mobile network.

It is well known that 3G signals struggle inside buildings. Indeed, last year research firm In-Stat warned mobile operators that they must improve the reception of 3G signals inside buildings in an effort to increase the appeal of 3G networks.

Femtocells have been considered by many as a possible solution for a while now, as they are essentially a small cellular base station that looks similar to a home router. It improves indoor 3G coverage and uses the home broadband telephone line to connect calls across the Internet to the mobile network. This allows carriers to offload users from the regular mobile network and save money on backhaul capacity.

At the Global Femtocell Summit in London, Vodafone announced that its Vodafone Access Gateway can be ordered from Vodafone shops or online from 1 July. It said it was first full commercial launch of a 3G femtocell in Europe.

"The Gateway is available from free (on certain tariffs) or as part of an inclusive price plan from as little as £15 ($24.45) a month," the operator said. "It is also available as a one off purchase for £160 ($261) or a monthly charge from as little as £5 ($8.14)."

Customers will need to register online the mobile numbers they want linked to the Vodafone Access Gateway, and within 24 hours the full service will be ready and working.

"The Vodafone Access Gateway will boost indoor mobile phone coverage for customers who today, find they need to move around the rooms in their home to get a consistent signal strength," said Ian Shepherd, Consumer Director, Vodafone UK in a statement.

Vodafone says that it will be quick and easy to install, and that the Gateway will work with all 3G handsets. It will also support up to four voice calls at any one time, and customers will no longer need to worry about missed calls on their mobiles due to inconsistent indoor coverage. The operator is also hoping that the femtocell will encourage its customers to make greater use of Vodafone services via their handset, anywhere in the home.

The femtocell is reportedly built by Alcatel Lucent using silicon from femto specialist picoChip.

The commercial launch of femtocells in the UK does raise the question as to whether Vodafone has consulted with the ISPs and carriers (such as BT), as the operator is effectively proposing to send its traffic over other carriers' networks.

BT was unable to answer at the time of going to press.

A Vodafone spokesman however dismissed it as a non-issue. "It is a small volume of data over one leg of a network, it so small and so minuscule," he said. "If we felt there was an issue, we would have consulted with the ISPs and carriers."