SFR France, part of the Vodafone group, launched their domestic femtocell service last week with a blaze of publicity. For a one-off price of 199 Euros (about $300) you can buy a femtocell with no ongoing charges, but no discounted rates or other financial rewards.
It’s being promoted on the basis of poor in-building coverage
Network operators face a dilemma when promoting their femtocell services. Should they highlight the poor in-building service available today on their network, raising the issue that maybe their customers should think about churning across to a network with better coverage? Femtocells allow them to differentiate by offering excellent in-building coverage, even in buildings which would be difficult to provide service to any other way.
There’s been a lot of active pushback from bloggers/commenters and others about the concept of paying to workaround deficiencies in the mobile network. This is particularly true in some parts of the US where coverage is patchy and prices remain high. Initial reaction in France seems to be that they like the idea, but not the price.
And it makes femtocells sexy for sure
It is said that the words “free” and “sex” always increase market takeup when advertising. SFR haven’t chosen to give their product away free, and have instead invested in a professionally shot video and associated materials to promote the offer.
Whether this is good enough to boast to your friends about remains to be seen.
I’m still of the opinion that operators aren’t promoting the additional benefits apart from basic coverage – the reality is these femtocells give very high quality voice and very high speed data response. I’ve previously compared femtocells with HDTV, suggesting that operators could position this as a premium service rather than just fixing the bits that are broken. To continue the analogy, femtocells are not just like replacing the roof-top antenna for your TV, instead it's more like buying satellite or cable HDTV service.
That back-office stuff isn’t fully sorted
SFR are charging some 6 Euros each time you want to change any existing entries in the “white list” of permitted phones that can use your femtocell (it's 4 Euros per call to customer services plus 2 Euros per number changed). But this only applies after the first month, and adding new numbers is free. This suggests that they still have some manual processes involved in updating the configuration of each femtocell. This is disappointing – I would have allowed (say) 2-3 updates per year free of charge, and only penalise those who are updating more frequently with some higher charges.
Given the cost of handling a customer care call might be much higher (let’s guess at 10-20 Euros or more per call), the potential for a commercial loss here has taken priority. I would have thought that if it’s found to be high after running for a few months, then this would justify an automated solution via a webpage.
The time to process each update is far too long at 48 hours. Say someone visits you for the weekend - they may have left before your update takes effect. Compare that with allowing access to your WiFi by just telling them the password (or even manually adding their MAC address into your WIFi router admin page). This either needs to be open access or managed within minutes through a simple online webpage. I guess these issues will be worked through in due course as the technology matures.
The lack of any special tariff plans or other discounted calls would have made it easier to deploy, but may put off some users unless they have a bundled minutes/data package. This is almost exactly the same deal as Vodafone offer in the UK, except for the charge to change your whitelist.
It’s a first for Ubiquisys
The solution which NEC have put together comprising Ubiquisys femtocell, Kineto Wireless Femto gateway and some other components has been trialled by several operators. Will Franks from Ubiquisys is proud to see this first full commercial launch with the full marketing promotion behind it.
It’s not the same vendor as used by Vodafone in the UK, indicating they haven’t made a group-wide vendor selection for femtocells yet. Once the standards are implemented by all vendors, they would be open to use multiple femtocell vendors in each country.
This NEC solution has been trialled by other operators, such as Telefonica O2 and TDC Denmark, so we could see some other further launches in coming months.
Some other minor points
- It works with broadband from any supplier at speeds as low at 512kbit/s
- You are not allowed to move it (say to a second home)
- Several broadband internet modems and specific 3G phone models are declared incompatible with the femtocell, suggesting there has been extensive field testing
- They make a big deal of not co-locating the femtocell within 1.5 metres of a WiFi access point.