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Femtocell World Summit 2010 – Day One

femtocellworldsummitSome quick thoughts and opinions from the start of this years annual Femtocell shindig in London. Over 80 operators and 330 delegates attended the event, exceeding last years figures and consolidating its position. The new venue, close to the home of Sherlock Holmes, the fictional detective, is very prestigious and received strong positive feedback from everyone. Perhaps he should be employed to seek out some of the hidden thoughts and activities about femtocells going on inside many vendors today. In his absence, I've tried to report the flavour of the event for those unable to attend in person.

The show would have found it hard to beat the impact of last year, when Vodafone surprised everyone with a commercial launch announcement to take effect within days. This year, operators have been much more restrained so far. Where before, they were happy to share the technical (and some customer reaction) to their early trials, I understand that many are in “stealth mode” and don’t want to reveal the status of their deployment projects (or approach to the market) in case this loses some competitive advantage.

This means that the show isn’t able to loudly celebrate/proclaim more success and back this up with evidence. However, several operators did speak of there progress to date. In the limited space available, I’ve summarised only a few of the speakers and highlights:

ATT Wireless said they have just completed nationwide rollout of 3G Microcells in the last few days. No small feat for an operator with some 80 million customers. I guess this means anyone in ATT served territories can now buy and operate one. They outlined some of the teething problems they had had. With the residential solution now in place, they are now looking at Enterprise femtocells (currently at an “exploratory stage”) which will likely include IP-PBX integration, open access and fit into a longer term IMS architecture.

Asked about their policy of “double charging” for data consumed through a femtocell (it counts from your mobile data plan as well as your wireline/cable data cap), Gordon Mansfield explained this was a clearly thought out strategy rather than a temporary glitch or technical limitation. 96% of femtocell owners also have Wi-Fi, all of their smartphone portfolio has Wi-Fi, so users can switch to Wi-Fi instead if they prefer. Network capacity and resources are used to handle the traffic which isn’t the case for Wi-Fi offload. I have to say this doesn’t match some of the more vitriolic comments reported on the blogs during last week and my personal view is that this isn’t sustainable in its current form.

NTT DoCoMo have 100% nationwide 3G coverage, and use repeaters as part of their total solution. They’ve also offered 3G femtocells since 2007 for indoor coverage but see applications as a major bonus. They use the hybrid access mode (which gives a whitelist for preferred/priority users, although anyone can use the femtocell if there is capacity). Yoshiyuki Yasuda challenged the industry to provide LTE femtocells for commercial rollout as soon as 2012, forecasting a need for some 15,000 units by 2014 and more to follow. [In context, they operate some 50,000 macrocell sites today for 3G - this would really rearchitect their network topology]

WIND, which operates fixed and mobile networks in Italy and Greece (part of the Orascom Group), believed that combined fixed/mobile network operators have an added advantage. They don’t have to rely on “other people’s networks” to connect through to the femtocell. They believe that femtocells would round out their already comprehensive service package with great indoor coverage. Several concerns about the customer proposition were mentioned, including the need to keep it simple – something reiterated by others – so that the consumer easily understands it.

The Femto Forum has commissioned some primary research, arranging for Colman Parkes to interview 1100 US consumers to determine their reaction to the femtocell propositions. The full results are to be presented tomorrow. Highlights include the figure of 56% who find femtocells appealing – interestingly, those who already have and use Wi-Fi seem to be most keen.

Optimus Portugal have found femtocells especially useful. They offer both residential and enterprise options, explaining that their enterprise femtocells have allowed them to reach many more smaller businesses than previously possible with picocells. Where before, 42% of picocells were deployed for businesses with a monthly spend in excess of 1500 Euros, they now find that 43% of femtocells address businesses with 250 to 500 Euros/month. They can use staff with less expertise to install the femtocells in a few minutes and transform the customer experience. They mandate use of their own DSL broadband service to connect it through.

Networking at the event has been excellent – there are many intriguing participantsthere in addition to the mainstream vendor/operator community. Some comments include:

  • Many people asking or trying to validate forecasts for femtocell shipments. Nobody really knows how quickly (or slowly) the market might take off. Several component suppliers are talking about shipments of 100,000 parts per month (where last year it was 10,000). The stealth mode of operators who may launch soon doesn’t help this mystery.
  • For those new to femtocells and seeking to understand the current status, meet vendors and other operators, it’s a great event. One said to me “it’s like manna from heaven”.
  • Ubiquisys revisited the issue of interference with the macrocells, explaining the need for and use of dynamic self configuration to address the problem. Some 10 to 15% of femtocells will be incorrectly placed on windowsills etc, but this issue can be overcome.
  • Cellcom (of Wisconsin and a femtocell operator) made a good point in a panel session. The large number of expected embedded devices (everything from cameras to refrigerators and so on) expected to be wirelessly enabled will need to automatically connect to the network. If we use Wi-Fi as today, then this might mean typing in a security password – with femtocells, the devices can be authenticated using a SIM card and seamlessly connect to the network without any user intervention.
  • SAGEM has a button on their femtocell which allows automatic, quick and easy “pairing” or registration of any new mobile. No need to type the phone number into a webpage This is similar to the Wi-Fi WPS (Wi-Fi Protected Setup), a feature also implemented in the same box.. It’s commercially available, but not deployed by anyone yet.
  • Airvana are claiming the first commercial UMTS femtocell deployment using the standards compliant Iu-h interface with Nokia Siemens Networks femto gateway. The system is being rolled out by Mosaic, a rural operator in Wisconsin USA. I believe this is also Airvana’s first UMTS public win, complementing their CDMA rollout in Japan for KDDI (and Sprint 3G win).

Apologies to those who made valuable contributions but who I’ve omitted in this short summary.

Read the following report about Day 2

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