As part of the ThinkFemtocell Leadership Interview Series, we spoke with Andy Tiller – VP Marketing at ip.access. Andy kindly took some time out to share his thoughts on the state of the femtocell market, the ip.access roadmap and what operators think of the business case for femtocells today.
What is the product scope of ip.access today?
For 3G femtocells, ip.access provides a complete end-to-end solution. This includes the Oyster 3G™ access point and an access controller (or Femto Gateway). We believe it’s important to own both “ends” of the femtocell system, which allows to us respond rapidly and resolve any problems using our own technology. We also provide substantial parts of the management systems, although the overall solution includes 3rd party components such as a TR-069 ACS.
The same approach worked well for us for our 2G nanoGSM® picocells, which are now live in almost 40 networks worldwide. These adopt the same principles as we’ve used for 3G femtocells, and can work over any IP link – even satellite. Hence the name of the company – ip.access – which is all about enabling cellular access via IP.
What are the main differences between picocells and femtocells?
Picocells tend to be installed by the operator themselves (or a sub-contractor) – for example in public buildings, or where they have direct relationships with enterprise customers. The lower hardware and self-installation costs of femtocells allow operators to target consumers and very small offices.
Deployment of femtocells in larger offices will require higher capacity units where large numbers of staff with more intensive phone usage are co-located. This may need femtocells with 8 or 16 concurrent traffic channels in comparison with today’s models that typically support 4.
We’re excited about the opportunities for femtocells in the enterprise and have detailed plans for enterprise 3G.
Apart from ip.access, only Alcatel-Lucent and Huawei are doing both ends of the 3G femtocell solution.
Which radio technologies is ip.access developing products for?
We are absolutely committed to Iu-h , but can implement proprietary solutions today using our Oyster 3G femtocell which are compatible with existing 3G phones and networks. This allows operators to trial and launch early, with an upgrade path to the standard when it is finalised.
LTE is definitely important in the long term and on our roadmap:
- It’s not a huge immediate opportunity (there are no handsets available yet)
- Femtocells will enable LTE to be deployed “from inside out”
- We’ll be ready when the time is right
- It’s a niche opportunity – the market size is relatively small compared to 3G
- We’re not working on it today, but have not completely ruled it out
- We’d review this in the future if the opportunity grew
- Big CDMA operators such as Verizon have declared they will evolve to LTE
- Therefore, a CDMA femtocell could be a short-lived product
- We’re not planning on addressing this market directly ourselves
Overall, the ip.access femtocell roadmap is to evolve through
- Consumer HSPA
- Enterprise HSPA
What’s your take on the overall state of the market today?
A large number of operators have played about with femtocell products in their labs... and some have done little more.
However, the early adopters are now involved in substantial projects, with major operators committed to making femtocells work in the real world. Most have so far been quiet on the public announcements:
- partly because they don’t want to risk alerting their competition
- partly because they are working on backoffice aspects, systems integration such as billing, ordering and operational etc.
- partly due to refining the customer proposition they will take to market
We can expect to see public launches during 1H2009 with some market trials earlier.
So can we expect a flurry of announcements around the time of the annual Mobile World Congress in February 2009?
Possibly some will have commercial deployments in time for February, but femtocell launch activity is more likely to be visible during Q2 2009.
There is a lot of systems integration work required. Unlike picocells, which are sold to the RF department within an operator and managed directly by them, femtocells affect many (if not all) departments within the operator.
For example, marketing departments have to think about how they can make femtocells a differentiator for them.
The ramifications of getting a femtocell launch wrong would be highly visible, hence the caution and thorough planning involved.
The technical departments woke up to the need for femtocells to offload data traffic before the marketing departments, who originally saw them for home zone tariff based offers, but now recognise many future opportunities including femtozone and connected home services.
Are femto-aware handsets mandatory to make femtocells a success?
In the long term, femto-aware handsets will be important, but we have plenty of time to incorporate these optimisations and 3GPP is already working on the specifications. They are only required when there is high density of femtocells in an area, but it will take a few years before you walk down the street and pass within range of a femtocell in every house. By that time, new handsets will have incorporated these femtocell optimisations as defined in each standards release, so that the majority of handsets in use will have these capabilities.
Operators are becoming convinced about the femtocell business case:
- acquiring new subscribers in the home and workplace
- provides a good reason for individual family members to switch when they next renew their contract
- save huge amounts of the cost of delivering data to the home both indoor and outdoor
There has been less certainly about the consumer proposition, but we are beginning to see the answer with the launch of the 3G iPhone, and the growth of mobile broadband (a surprising amount of which is used at home). This is gradually turning the concept of a “personal 3G signal” into a compelling proposition.
If we think back a few years, it was inconceivable that we would make mobile phone calls in the home when we already had a low cost fixed line alternative. Nowadays, we just rely on the mobile phone, and use the bundled “free” minutes often in preference to the chargeable fixed phone call.
Today we are asking why we would want to use mobile data at home, instead of WiFi or fixed broadband. In 18 months time, using mobile broadband data at home will seem just a sensible approach.
Operators are beginning to backtrack on mobile broadband data allowances. We are starting to see usage caps and restrictions on heavy data usage. A D Little (the analyst firm) have argued there should be higher charges for guaranteed network quality – something consumers will be able to control for themselves with femtocells.
What’s your current thinking about the Enterprise femtocell business case?
Voice is the first priority, because we already have better ways to access the local office LAN for data.
However, in the future enterprise femtocells will be able to provide local routing of data traffic, rather than passing traffic all the way through the operators network and then through firewalls into the enterprise LAN.
Quick access to small documents, for example on a BlackBerry, rather than using laptops would satisfy a demand. How often are these needed at meetings or when away from the desk? Although many smartphones do have WiFi as an alternative direct access to the office LAN, the configuration and setup is clunky and does not provide a seamless, easy to use experience.
But we’d see the requirement for high bandwidth delivered over femtocells initially coming from consumer applications more than in the enterprise environment.
What about interference between femtocells and the macrocellular network – a common concern for operator’s RF departments?
The industry has done a lot of live testing and simulation, and is becoming more confident that interference is not going to be a big problem.
The challenge is that there are lots of different scenarios and we can’t fully test each and every single case.
Operators want to know where the problems lie, so they can recognise these edge cases and have processes in place to deal with them.
Will operators let their femtocells be connected using other fixed broadband operators?
We believe most operators will not make it a requirement to switch broadband supplier, but many will make a commercially attractive offer to get the customer to switch either on initial take-up or later.
Andy Tiller is VP Marketing for ip.access , a vendor for 2G picocells and 3G femtocells, based in Cambridge, UK.
If you or your company would like to feature in our interview series, please contact us