The frustration of some femtocell vendors is becoming more visible on the last day of the conference: A couple of yesterday's presentations captured a little of the frustration of femto industry vendors who have worked extremely hard to meet the long list of demanding requirements from network operators. As Shlomo Gadot of Broadcom said – the technology is proven, the market is starving for a solution, we're very close to the price point.... But still the network operators don't seem to be rolling femtocells out in volume. Once again, I can't do justice to all the content from presentations, various exhibition stands and conversations in this short report, so apologies for substantial omissions.
Operator brand positioning still seems to be an issue
Perhaps Verizon's presentation gave some insights as to why. They reported tremendous success when using their femtocell (the Verizon Wireless Extender) to reduce churn. They've also successfully offloaded heavy users from their macro network in Chicago, by sending them a free femtocell – both improving speeds for those high users as well as releasing capacity on the macro network for others to benefit from. Their femtocell solution works well and they're very happy with it.
Despite this clear success, you still can't buy a femtocell in a Verizon store. It doesn't fit with their corporate branding of having the best network. I asked if they'll adopt Vodafone's market positioning, but was told that's not going to happen. Instead, the femtocell proposition has to change somehow.
In contrast, Vodafone don't seem to have suffered any loss of brand image by promoting Sure Signal – their network brand remains strong and is arguably strengthened by saying they are the only one who can truly guarantee full service indoors anywhere (assuming there is a DSL line to connect with). Vodafone Ireland jokingly apologised for the lower approval figure than Vodafone Greece during their femtocell trials - only 96% (against 98% in Greece) would recommend them to their friends and family. They explained how they had carefully crafted their marketing message to celebrate the positive aspects of their customer's individual homes (thick woods, stone buildings, basement flats etc.) and how simple it was for them to have 5 bar coverage.
Comcast gave some insights into wireless user behaviour
Although they don't run a mobile network themselves, Comcast have built out a lot of Wi-Fi hotspot capacity in addition to their wireline/cable services. They believe in the long term, the usage mix of traffic on wireless will be a similar profile to wireline today – say 50% entertainment (including video), 20% web surfing; a total of 13GB/month. Comcast has deployed some 5000 WiFi hotspots so far, and plan to build out 100K over the coming years.
Wi-Fi has some new features coming – the new HotSpot 2.0, which Comcast will be trialling later this year. Greater use of the 5GHz spectrum will help reduce congestion in high traffic areas. Sports stadiums seem to be the biggest challenge – many users wanting to watch video at the same time, with others trying to use Mi-Fi (cellular to Wi-Fi adaptors) at the same time/in the same spectrum.
Contela explained how they use femtocells in Korea to offload data traffic. Unusually, the system deals with voice and data traffic differently – switching voice calls to the normal macro network while handling as much data traffic as possible through femtocells and Wi-Fi.
New entrants may takeup femtocells more quickly
TOT, Thailand, a relatively new entrant to mobile explained how they can install femtocells at public payphone booths as a quick way to find sites with backhaul connectivity (using DSL) and power. Getting the height of the unit is important – it needs to be slightly out of reach. They also showed their disaster recovery solution – which uses femtocells + satellite backhaul and can be rapidly deployed. In these situations, providing a fixed/wireline phone service isn't useful – most people now have all their phone numbers held in their mobile phone and not written down. Mesh backhaul, linking clusters of femtocells to each other using wireless and aggregating the backhaul to a few egress points, is also a useful option – a maximum of 5 "hops" using a so-called spine and rib architecture matches urban street layouts.
It's tough being a new entrant – getting access to new sites/towers can be very difficult – so building out a new metro-layer could be an achievable way to compete effectively. Techniques like these could be used by new entrants unable to build out capacity more effectively than encumbent operators who stick with macrocells alone.
Enterprise use is changing
Stuart Carlaw from ABI Research. Growing number of employees have more than one phone they use in the office (one corporate + one personal). Both phones have mixed voice/data use. After some retrenchment in 2009, voice has continued to grow and is now 779 minutes average for corporate users. Video and picture messaging are being used by enterprise users (on their corporate liable phone) more than ever before. The growing demands of employees are giving their IT departments a major headache, for which enterprise femtocells will be a major part of the solution.
Some other snippets:
- Contela, who presented their data femtocell solution in the conference, not only provide a complete femtocell, gateway and management solution. They've also had their femtocell product cost-engineered by a Taiwanese ODM too.
- The Femtocell Application developers toolkit from Alcatel-Lucent isn't locked into their solution. Applications developed and tested using their SDK should also work with any other femtocell system that also conforms to the Femtocell Application API.
- There were a number of operators present at the conference who are clearly there in an active capacity. Most were pretty tight lipped about their plans, but all seem to acknowledge that femtocells will play some part in the story.
- Independently, Peter Agnew from Colt Telecom, said he thought the industry was close to the tipping point citing strong user data demand combined with proven technology. He's spoken to several network operators around Europe and thinks most believe femtocells will be part of the network in the future, although a few sceptics remain.
- Lots of business activity seemed to be going on behind closed doors at the event
- Embarrasing revelation of the day was when Dean Bubley, chair of the Femto Forum award judging panel, revealed that despite living partly in a basement with poor coverage and using Vodafone UK, he didn't actually use a femtocell. I hope that Vodafone UK will have another femtocell convert recommending the solution in the near future.
Once again, apologies for the large amount of information from the event I've left out - you'll have to attend in person next year to see it all.