Numerically, most small cells are manfactured by ODMs (Original Device Manufacturers), who are expert in high volume/low cost/high quality production of consumer electronics equipment. They specialise in taking equipment designs from established/proven vendors, and re-engineering them for mass production at low cost. This might involve changing some of the components, redesigning the internal electronics boards/layout and packaging format. With large factory capacity, strong buying power from their component suppliers, these companies can ramp up production capacity very quickly and meet delivery orders in very short timescales.
The larger and higher RF power small cell products, especially urban/outdoor units of 1W or greater, are shipped in much lower volumes and command a higher price, so do not need quite so much cost engineering. These may be manufactured in existing cellsite production facilities.
Independent Small Cell Specialists
Independent small cell specialist companies, such as Cisco, ip.access and Airvana have their own relationships with high volume manufacturing contractors. There are a number of new entrants to the market who are also supplying direct.
Different commercial arrangements with Original Device Manufacturers
Higher volume suppliers have engaged low cost manufacturing expertise from Taiwan and other Far Eastern companies. There are various commercial options in place.
In the early days of residential femtocells, the very large market forecasts of many tens of millions attracted interest from many Asian ODMs. Over time, their interest has dropped off, leaving a smaller number that remain actively involved in the industry.
Alcatel-Lucent also work with a limited number of ODMs. This allows the network operator to choose competitively from several suppliers, specify any customisation (e.g. logos or special packaging format), while the unit is tested and certified by Alcatel-Lucent in their labs. This balances low cost, supplier diversity and risk.
Far Eastern based
Many ODMs are based on the Far East, such as Taiwan and China, where they dominate many types of consumer electronics. Their products may be commissioned with branding and logos from specific customers, such as for larger network operators or well known consumer brands.
It is said that many ODMs have yet to gain practical field experience of femtocell RF (radio frequency) electronics (and especially the "secret sauce" of network optimisation algorithms), but most are familiar with Wi-Fi and/or cellular handsets. As the industry matures, they are slowly gaining this knowledge and experience.
There are several commercial models operating for ODMs in femtocells today:
- They may work directly as subcontractor for one of the larger companies and build to their design and requirements. Alcatel-Lucent operates this way with several ODMs, specifying the hardware design, allowing the freedom for some cost engineering, and then providing the software which runs on the device. This allows Alcatel-Lucent to drive down costs, increase choice of device types/format and widen their supply base.
- They may licence a design and build under their own name. Ubiquisys had offered ODMs the opportunity to build products to their hardware design, which is then supplied directly to the end customer. These femtocells automatically download and run Ubiquisys software, licenced from them by the operator directly. ODMs such as Sercomm have designed and shipped product on this basis.
- They may design their own, typically starting from a reference design (from one of the chipset vendors) and software stacks (from one of the stack suppliers). Further consultancy services can also be bought to finish, test and trial the devices.
- They may buy the femtocell as a discrete plug-in module that fits into an existing consumer product, such as a DSL router or IPTV set top box. This requires less technical knowledge of femtocells, but additional functionality and value can be created by closer integration between the two systems. At this stage, only Free France has shipped significant numbers of femtocells integrated into their set top box.
ODMs known to be active in femtocell design and development (not a complete list) are listed below.
These can be identified from attendees at the "plugfests" organised by ETSI to test and validate interoperability using the Iu-h standard, with participants announced here, press articles, press releases from the various component manufacturers, and from the websites of these companies themselves.
- Arcadyan: Taiwanese. Announced plans to deliver femtocells in 1H 2011. Believed to be a supplier to Free France.
- Askey: Taiwanese. Member of Small Cell Forum. Manufacture Sagemcomm's 3G Femtoplug supplied to Vodafone Group.
- Bravotech: DAS vendor with TD-SCDMA/Wi-Fi femtocell believed to be one of three main suppliers to China Mobile. Announced live network demo June 2012
- Comba: This Chinese vendor announced they had already launched a range of femtocell products for different technologies, and were partnering with the China Mobile Research Institute to develop nanocells. Believed to be one of three main suppliers to China Mobile.
- C & S Microwave: Korean vendor known to supply Alcatel-Lucent (products shown on their conference stands)
- Foxconn: Mentioned as femtocell developer since 2009. They make a lot of iPhones for Apple today and are secretive to the point of being almost invisible.
- Gemtek: Taiwanese. Mentioned as femtocell developer
- SagemComm: Known to supply Alcatel-Lucent (and most Vodafone subsiduaries) with their BroadW@ave product.
- Sercomm: Built Ubiquisys (now Cisco) design, and demonstrated an astonishing 15 different models at MWC 2011. Their website details 3G and LTE Small Cell products for both residential and enterprise use.
- Tecom: Taiwanese. Originally a Ubiquisys (now Cisco) ODM now with several different products available.
- Zyxel: Taiwanese. Believed to have shipped several 100K's of residential femtocell products to date.
Other companies which had been visible in the past, but believed to be no longer active include:
- Ablaze Wireless: US startup focussed on development of their own 3G femtocell including broadband chipset. Announced using CCPU (now Radisys) Trillium stack and participation in femtocell plugfests. Setup a Taiwanese office to handle local supply chain.
- Alpha: Taiwanese spin-off of D-Link. Products include combinations of 3G, LTE and Wi-Fi as described on their websitedescribed on their website.
- Delta Networks: Taiwanese ODM with over 2000 employees. Products range from large Ethernet switches to residential CPE equipment. Offer their own 8-channel 21Mbit/s release 8 design.
- Femtel: Announced plan for TD-SCDMA femtocell based on Picochip reference design. Believed to be one of the three main suppliers to China Mobile.
- Mitrastar: Originally the ODM division of Zyxel, this Taiwanese company has already started shipping femtocells to one or more of the major vendors. No longer believed to be shipping equipment.
This list is by no means exhaustive. Many companies have bought software stacks from the likes of Radisys (who claim around 30 "design wins" for 3G femtocells to date), and these manufacturers by their nature do not all strongly market themselves (to end consumers) so are difficult to track.