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Femtocell World Summit 2011 - Day One Report

femtocellworldsummitAnother year passes by and the femtocell industry has continued to mature. This annual jamboree is a great time to checkpoint progress of the new technology, validate that its still on track and spot any "breakouts" or changes in the overall trends. Attracting an increasing number of delegates, this event continues to be the benchmark industry event.

Dungeons and Dragons

As we descended down into the gloomy underground depths of the London hotel, I did wonder if we would be given hard hats and a Davey lamp to navigate with. The new venue for Femto World Summit might possibly have been chosen with a view to demonstrating how much difference femtocells make in deep basement/high traffic areas, but it seems nobody had told the network operators about it. There were a few tweets (over Wi-Fi) about the limited coverage which livened things up.

Previous Summits have had a real buzz about them – a major announcement or step forward. This year, the Femto Forum announced that 3G femtocells now outnumber 3G basestations, quoting an Informa estimate that some 2.2 million are now deployed worldwide. More than doubling since last year, this is substantial progress. Simon Saunders, Chairman of the Femto Forum, highlighted further progress with over 31 network operators now commercially live using femtocells and 43 committed to launch. The mix has changed in the past year, with Enterprise femtocell services making up around 1/3rd of the total. He ran through the Femto Forum objectives for 2011, as previously discussed in January with ThinkFemtocell, and confirmed they were on track. He pointed out that analysts haven't been revising or delaying their forecasts for femtocell shipments, pronouncing that the femtocell industry as a whole also remained on track.

Vodafone's Global Femtocell Policy

This was followed up by Vodafone's global femtocell tsar, Thilo Kirchinger, who clearly laid out the reasoning and benefits of their femtocell strategy. There are now 9 Vodafone subsidiaries with commercial femtocell service – almost a third of the total – and more are to follow shortly. Research showed that some 34% of the UK either have insufficient or unsatisfactory indoor mobile coverage and Wi-Fi only partly solves the issue. In summary, he'd like to see accelerated standardization of the Iu-h interface, for the femtocell supplier ecosystem to start engaging with the Connected Home industry and for femtocell costs to reduce further.

I asked how operators, such as Vodafone, with strong brands of being the best mobile network and coverage could reconcile asking customers to pay for a box to fix poor coverage problems. He felt that femtocells were complementary (especially for growing indoor use) and by offering both (ie great outdoor macrocell coverage plus great indoor femtocell service) it gave them competitive advantage. Another question related to 3rd party broadband internet – he reported that this hadn't been a problem, especially where customers conduct a speed test as part of the pre-sales process.

Telecom Italia Femtocell Launch scheduled for July

Telecom Italia Mobile (TIM to the locals), has always been a bit of a trendsetter in the mobile industry and is one to watch. They have the highest penetration rate and smartphone takeup of any European country. They will launch femtocell services next month (the precise date is commercially withheld), with Alcatel-Lucent providing two sizes of femtocell (seems very similar to Vodafone products). It won't be mandatory to use Telecom Italia broadband – any third party wireline/cable broadband can be used. While the pricing also can't be revealed, their billing system will be flexible enough to offer different prices when customers are using their "femtozone" at home. A major issue for their implementation was the regulatory requirement to know if the femtocell has been moved (so that emergency services go to the right address) – this is checked by ensuring that at least one external macrocell ID is the same as when the unit was first installed and/or that the Telecom Italia broadband IP address matches. Unusually, TIM want to have SIM cards to authenticate their femtocells – so for example faulty femtocells can be replaced and by swapping the SIM card would automatically reconfigure for that customer. Other operators privately commented to me that this was surprising – the additional costs and logistics of managing SIM cards can be a bit of a nightmare.

Other quick notes:

  • South Korea Telecom (SKT) plan to deploy some 10,000 public hotspots before the end of the year, many equipped with both Wi-Fi and cellular. They've previously used a lot of repeaters to ensure excellent (voice) coverage, but now need to bring in heavy additional capacity and higher speeds.
  • Picochip reaffirmed the issue of replacing repeaters with additional capacity, suggesting that rationing wasn't the right answer for customers who have grown to love data access. The web will only increase reliance on data connectivity and network operators will need to respond by building out a new network layer to meet demand.
  • Continuous Computing launched their "Femtotality" software product. No longer limited to just the protocol stacks, they've invested an additional 150 man years in their application layer (I believe this figure includes an acquisition, otherwise their 200 staff would have been working a lot of overtime) and now offer SON (Self Optimisation), remote management and configuration features too.
  • uMobile, a new Malaysian operator, plans to target high capacity data service in peak areas using femtocells. However their strategy is somewhat hampered by a local regulation (tax) of around US$600 per cellsite – not really significant for macrocells, but a serious problem for thousands of femtocells.
  • NTT DoCoMo was able to restore cellular service after the earthquake/tsunami in just 6 weeks after 4,900 cellsites were put out of service in the Tohoku region alone - femtocells were part of the solution. They plan to switch off their 2G service next year and have already launched LTE. They intend to deploy LTE femtocells as soon as possible.
  • Alcatel-Lucent announced their femtocell application developer kit, which is based on the recently published Femto Forum femtocell API specification. Already 23 developers have signed up to use it, with the first application to be made available by Telecom Italia when they launch.

In addition to the conference, there were a number of stands spread across two floors. While I didn't get around all of them by any means (there is a "treasure hunt" involving stickers for those that do), the Picochip/Continuous Computing/Cavium/Cisco demo was prominent just across from the main door – they have extended their earlier LTE lab demo to run end-to-end from a commercial LTE data dongle all the way through to the Cisco (formerly Starent) core network (Evolved Packet Core). Maybe next year, delegates could be loaned an LTE data dongle so we could all experience the benefits of 4G in the conference room....

I hope this gives a reasonable impression of the event. I've omitted many of the presentations and other conversations I've had (more of that tomorrow). The value of networking at events like this is difficult to explain, but I always come away learning more each time and benefitting from talking with many people who know a lot more than I do.

More tomorrow....

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