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Image The first home cellsites for standard mobile phones

The concept of a compact self-optimising home cellsite has been documented since 1999. Alcatel announced in March 1999 that they would bring to market a GSM home basestation which would be compatible with existing standard GSM phones. They planned to launch the product in 2000 and forecast capturing 50% of the market of 120 million units the following year.

The system design re-used and modified the Cordless Telephony Standard (as used by digital DECT cordless phones), which was a forerunner of the UMA standard used in dual-mode WiFi/Cellular solutions today. At that time, dual mode DECT/GSM (rather than GSM/WiFi) was the mainstream approach to solving the problem.

Although the demonstration units were built and proven to work through a standard POTS phone line, the high cost of the equipment (especially the crystal required to keep long term frequency accurate to 50 parts per billion) proved far too high to make it commercially viable.

Using WiFi instead

The focus then shifted to the UMA standard, which operators such as France Telecom/Orange and T-Mobile US launched in several countries with mixed results. The growing range of UMA capable handsets expanded to include 3G phones in September 2008. Rather than requiring any special basestation, the UMA system uses standard WiFi access points with a UMA capable handset and a UNC to connect into the mobile operator's core network.

During this period, "over-the-top" virtual network operators such as Truphone and Fring, used the built-in WiFi capabilities in a growing range of handsets to offer low cost calls over WiFi and or VoIP. These schemes were more targetted at saving call charges, especially when roaming abroad, than addressing coverage or capacity issues.

Mobile Technology miniaturised

Various research projects continued to work on femtocell concept products, with Motorola engineers in Swindon claiming to have built the first complete 3G home base station in 2002.

Several companies were also driving the cost and size down of existing 2G equipment. These were termed picocells (because they were installed and maintained by operators, and were aimed at large business customers) and were simply smaller and lower cost versions of larger equipment. Vendors such as ip.access and Radioframe developed products in this space.

Research into lower cost chipsets to solve the problem of costs continued, and a new chipset design company - picoChip - was demonstrating 3G chipsets in 2003.

By mid-2004, two UK based startup companies were using these chipsets to develop their own 3G cellular home basestations - Ubiquisys and 3Way networks (now part of Airvana) .

Femtocell becomes a recognised term

Around 2005, the term femtocell was adopted for a standalone, self-configuring home basestation. Rupert Baines, VP marketing of picoChip and Will Franks, CTO of Ubiquisys are both said to have coined the term during this period, although picoChip registered the website URL first (in April 2006).

Used of the term femtocell is first documented by analyst Dean Bubley, having heard the term at a wireless VoIP conference in November 2005.

Products were demonstrated by several vendors at the 3GSM conference in February 2007, and they were one of the main topics at the 2008 conference. 

The femto forum was formed in 2007 and grew to represent industry players and advocate this approach.

Commercial service becomes a reality

Commercial service was launched first by Sprint in the USA with their Airave CDMA offering in August 2008.

Softbank Japan announced the planned launch of their 3G femtocell in January 2009.

Vodafone UK launched their Access Gateway (later renamed Sure Signal) in June 2009. Tens of other operators followed suit.

Higher capacity femtocells were developed using second and third generation chipsets, leading to the term Enterprise Femtocell suitable for businesses with higher traffic throughput and coverage requirements.

The scope of femtocells was then extended outdoors, to include outdoor urban areas (where the term Metrocell became used by some vendors) and even rural/remote areas. This increased scope led to an evolution into the term Small Cell. ThinkFemtocell rebranded as ThinkSmallCell in January 2012, the Femto Forum was renamed the Small Cell Forum in February 2012 and Femtocell World Summit became Small Cell World Summit for June 2012.



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