August 20, 2008

Sprint Airave

I had high hopes for Sprint's Airave. Too high.

Airave is what's known as a femtocell, a scaled-down version of those useful but unsightly towers that convey phone calls from your handset to the network. Unlike the palm-tree disguised structures that pockmark neighborhoods, femtocells are small enough to fit on your desk and rather than covering a radius of several miles, they're designed to boost network dead spots in a home or office [, 7/30/07].

Available from Sprint Nextel (S) since July 30, Airave was the first femtocell aimed at consumers in the U.S. The Samsung device goes for $100 and costs an additional $5 to $25 a month, in conjunction with an existing Sprint wireless calling plan. Sprint says Airave will give you excellent wireless reception within up to 5,000 feet [think 14 football fields]. If successful, Airave would be a welcome remedy to Sprint's chronic network spottiness.

Patchy, Insecure Coverage That proved too big a job for the device I tested. The coverage area was far smaller and choppier than promised, and I found the Airave overpriced given its shortcomings. The Airave covered less than 100 feet -- enough for my house, but not enough to reach my whole backyard. And at the outer edges, call quality was spotty. People on the other end of calls said I sounded distant. Hand-off between Airave and Sprint's main network wasn't seamless either; I seemed to miss a millisecond of conversation. Of the more than a dozen calls I placed, one call was dropped.

I also take umbrage with Sprint's Airave usage policies. Unless you ask Sprint to restrict your Airave to use with specified Sprint phone numbers, anyone with a Sprint unlimited calling plan can use your femtocell without permission. Sure, neighbors piggyback on Wi-Fi signals all the time -- but most of the time it doesn't make much of a difference. The problem with Airave's femtocell is that it can handle only three phone calls at a time.

Don't expect Airave to save you much money either. Sprint customers with unlimited calling plans pay $5 a month for the service. But those still using plans with limited buckets of minutes pay $10 a month for a single line, and $20 for a family for unlimited calling from within the home. That adds up to a lot of dough for a service this unreliable.

Set-Up Is Small Consolation I can't fault Airave on every count. Set-up is a breeze -- the easiest I've had with a router. I didn't have to run a set-up CD or anything, I merely had to plug in a couple of cords. In two minutes, I was done. The router then took about 30 minutes to configure on its own. Another benefit is that Airave works with any existing Sprint phone.

In the end, those advantages were outweighed by Airave's many drawbacks. Consumers looking for a low-cost way to boost their in-home wireless signal may be better served by T-Mobile's HotSpot @Home, which costs $10 a month for as many as five lines [T-Mobile also charges as little as $30 for its router] and which I found to be more effective [, 06/25/08]. If you're still considering Airave, guard against high hopes.