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Femtocell Views and Analysis
- Published on Monday, 21 February 2011
- Written by David Chambers
Mobile World Congress is by far the largest event in the mobile industry calendar attracting more than 60,000 visitors from around the world - up by some 10,000 from before. This year's event was much more upbeat and optimistic, with more energy and enthusiasm - reflecting the general positive tone of the industry. Femtocells were again a prominent topic - here's our roundup of what was on show and how it related to the rest of the industry.
Main Themes of the Conference
The two major themes for me were firstly the huge shakeup of mobile device industry, with some fantastic new gadgets. After Nokia’s CEO made his “burning platform” speech last week, the rise and fall of device manufacturers in recent years was highly visible. But alongside this industry re-alignment, the rapid growth of data traffic from smartphones (and soon tablets) especially has led many to recognise the need to offload traffic to small cells.
Some strong statements about residential femtocells
Telstra, the Australian operator, made their position clear early on – they don’t believe in the business case or need for residential femtocells. But remember that they have a very good 3G nationwide network operating at 850MHz (much lower frequency than other countries) and homes are typically of timber construction. Those I spoke to from North America for example, continue to point out the lack of a decent phone signal from any network operator in many homes.
More than balanced by recognition of small cells
Telstra also said they do see a need for more smaller outdoor cells – the so-called metro-femto concept – as part of their capacity solution. Even Ericsson, also not a believer in the residential femto market, recognised the need for smaller cells and launched an antenna integrated cell at the show.
For some, offloading data traffic to Wi-Fi was the answer. China Mobile plan to deploy over a million this year, of which many will be open-access through their fixed broadband customers – using the Fonera business model.
You can view all the keynote speeches here – there’s loads to choose from but I’d especially recommend those from Telstra, China Mobile and Softbank Japan.
More radical designs
A couple of more unusual designs for radio access networks caught my eye. Freescale (the ex-motorola semiconductor business) and Alcatel-Lucent launched lightRadio. The concept is to have lots of very small radio heads connected through high speed broadband to centralised base station controllers. This will need high speed broadband – typically fibre – to each cellsite/radio head and centralise the heavy processing for cells in hubs or “in the cloud”. With the aforesaid demand for lots of small cells, this could be argued to match the design requirement, but my view would be that the lower and more efficient backhaul connectivity requirements of metro-femto will be more suitable. The lightRadio solution comes from a different division of Alcatel-Lucent than their femtocell business and is positioned as complementary to it.
Intel were also pushing “cloud computing for the Radio Access Network”, demonstrating an LTE basestation but principally promoting that the RNC function (the 3G central base station controller) could be implemented efficiently using their standard servers and chips (albeit with a higher input/output pipes to the data centres).
It’s nice to see some innovative and creative thinking going on here, but I didn’t see anything to change my view that small cells are needed to provide capacity/coverage, and that the femtocell architecture is the right one for the industry.
Femtocell component vendors maintain progress
Picochip were showing off their latest chip, the PC3008, which has shrunk to a smaller 40nm technology. Their stand had different zones for outdoor, LTE and enterprise femtocells – showing off a range of femtocell products from different vendors.
Lime, who make a single RF chip that can span across the full range of mobile frequencies, were showing off a range of design wins. They are in production for a CDMA femtocell and announced an LTE femtocell design with Airwalk (using Mindspeed chipset).
Continuous Computing were highlighting how widely applicable their protocols stacks are – 10 different hardware vendors are now supported. They were demonstrating 4 femto configurations on their stand – 2 3G and 2 LTE with chips from Qualcomm, Picochip and Mindspeed. This allows their customers to switch chip vendor in the future if they need to. They now have 26 3G femto customers, and 19 LTE. I particularly liked their article in the show daily where Manish compared the telco industry to battle tactics from the middle ages – perhaps femtocells are the longbows that will differentiate who wins the war for data capacity. (Read this on Page 34 of Tuesday’s edition). Indeed all the show daily magazine contents are available online, and many of the articles are worth a quick skim.
Mainstream femtocell vendors all very busy
The main/well known femtocell vendors were all really busy (as usual) and reported having a good show. Andy Tiller at ip.access reminded me that their ATT deployment is the largest worldwide – there are perhaps more ip.access femtocells in operation today than any other manufacturer. They’ve developed a lot of diagnostic tools from their practical experience across different operators. For example, if there is a call dropout or failure, the last few minutes of data is captured and uploaded. They can then review what happened and improve their software or configuration to take account of more unusual scenarios. This practical field experience dramatically improves the user experience.
They were promoting their enterprise S-Class and E-Class femtocells, and talked about how operators need to configure these more carefully to enable hand-in and hand-out for example.
Ubiquisys were showing off their growing range of products, where ODMs can use their reference design and optimise it for cost and packaging. Tecom are the latest to adopt their “femto engine” approach – a very compact and straightforward device. Keith Day was keen to emphasise that all their designs are now 8 channel and 21Mbit/s – based on the Broadcom/Percello chipset. Also present at their stand were Public Wireless, who are experts in outdoor femtocell design. They’ve changed their own business model and now provide reference designs and technical support for manufacturers who want to build this type of product – adding the remote management and environmentally battle-hardened aspects to the standard femto-engine design. ADB also had their Ubiquisys powered home gateway at the stand – it had almost every kind of interface included – even ISDN for handsets which Roberto Pellegrini tells me is still quite widely used in Germany.
Alcatel-Lucent also had a strong femtocell showing – I wrote of their outdoor metro-femto products last week. They have a growing range of indoor products for residential and enterprise too.
Huawei didn’t have any femtocells on their main stand (I did ask too). ZTE don’t do femtocells according to their booth staff. I wasn’t brave enough to ask at the Ericsson stand. Nokia Siemens of course resell Ubiquisys and have their own femto gateway.
Argela (not quite a mainstream femto vendor yet) were showing off their outdoor and enterprise femtocell models. Unlike other new femtocell entrants, they are owned by a network operators, so already have a route to market that will build their field experience and credibility in due course.
LTE femtocells already well ahead
There are a growing range of working LTE femtocells on show. Mindspeed seem to be highly visible for this, although other chip vendors have working designs too – Picochip, TI etc. I saw the demo from MimoOn, who provide the Layer 1 physical LTE piece – demonstrating high def video streaming on a TI chipset.
The current LTE networks in use today are all based on 3GPP Release 8 standard, which is almost 2 years old – Release 10 (also known as LTE Advanced) is expected to come out next month. That’s still pretty quick to go from standard publication into live commercial production. Adrian Scrase from 3GPP commented that most operators want to launch LTE in new spectrum, but aren’t approaching this as a race – they are planning carefully, undertaking thorough and systematic testing – they can’t afford to get it wrong.
What’s continuing to make life difficult for the LTE community is the lack of spectrum – unlike 3G, there is no generally agreed world standard band. Telstra upset the applecart by announcing their intention to use 1800MHz for LTE. There were also general demands from operators for more spectrum (nothing new this!), but many countries have still to auction it off. Yankee Group were forecasting that less than 10% of subscribers will be using LTE in 5 years time, so the bulk of traffic is going to have to be sent via 3G or offloaded to Wi-Fi.
Some changes for next year
Mobile World Congress has clashed with Valentines Day for as many years as I can remember. Partners will be encouraged to learn that the dates are moving from next year – the event starts a couple of weeks later, at the end of February (27th Feb to 1 March 2012). The venue is also up for review – a shortlist of candidates for 2013 through 2017 includes Milan, Munich, Paris and Barcelona – the decision will be made in the summer.
Andy Bateman from Avren Conferences, who organise the Femtocell conferences for the Femto Forum, tells me he has sold the business to Clarion. They intend to retain the successful brand and format, so you may not notice much change. Carole Mayhew is now managing director and the wider marketing resources of Clarion will be used to grow the business further.
It’s such a big and eventful conference that I am bound to have omitted much of what has gone on. Apologies for anything major I have overlooked. There’s a great deal more information available online this year, including the keynote speeches, daily news and other writeups. Feel free to comment below with your own thoughts from the event.
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