Interview with David Swift, Senior Manager for Product Marketing Small Cell solutions at Alcatel-Lucent, who shares insights into their expanded range of femto based small cells, deployment experience and long term roadmap. He forecasts an additional 10 to 20 mobile operators launching femtocell service before end 2010, of which at least half are major players.
What range of femtocell services do Alcatel Lucent provide?
We provide a complete end to end integrated solution, from Femtocell Access Point through Femtocell Gateway, provisioning and device management. We install and integrate this into the operators existing systems – it’s a true plug-and-play approach.
We’ve found this to be very successful and would suggest that some operators who chose to go down a non-integrated route are now struggling with several of these issues.
An example would be our femtocell gateway, which is modular and allows capacity to be expanded in stages to several 100,000’s of concurrent sessions. Other products have capacity limitations or don’t scale in the same way.
What femtocell products do you offer and who makes them?
Our initial products were based on the picoChip 2xx chipset and supported 4 channels targeted for the man and women in street to use at home. In February Alcatel-Lucent launched an 8 channel version for the business market able to connect up to 8 devices. Each connection can support a simultaneous voice and data session.
The V2 products available soon are based on the picoChip 3xx chipset providing improved performance and smaller form factor.
The femtocell software layer 2/3 is 100% Alcatel-Lucent. We based our first femtocells on a partnership with SAGEM. They provide the manufacturing design and optimization to achieve low cost, producing femtocells in volume at their factories in Europe and the Far East.
We’ve recently added two new manufacturers to our portfolio. We did this because we foresee significant volumes and want to ensure we have manufacturing capacity in place. This approach provides diversity of supply and keeps costs down through competition.
All use the same Alcatel-Lucent hardware and software design and have identical functionality. The new products from Far Eastern manufacturers use the latest version of our software, so have some new features. For examples, some models have 2 LAN ports so they can be connected in series and not use an extra port on your broadband router/modem. These come in different physical formats, including wall mounted for enterprise.
What’s next in your femtocell range?
The latest models takes advantage of second generation design like reduced energy consumption, smaller form factor and will be in production later this year.
We are also talking with operators about integrated versions – combined modem/Wi-Fi/femtocell units - which we could bring to market quickly.
We prefer to use the term “small cells”. Small cells offer an unmatched technique for expanding network capacity without the need for additional spectrum. Owning to the small cells coverage area, the same spectrum band (carrier) is reused by different small cells thanks to the use of spread spectrum and the use of spreading codes to differentiate adjacent cells. We’ve categorized these into three types:
- Home cell for domestic use. Low cost, zero-touch installation
- Enterprise cell for businesses. These are self aware, self-learning and can be powered over Ethernet.
- Metro for public service areas. These have additional features for use in unsupervised and insecure areas.
Small cells in all their forms, residential, enterprise and metro are easy to install and require less preparation. Traditional, bulky and cumbersome cell site is not required for small cells due to their small size. Small cells can be concealed behind building objects.
What are the biggest issues you’ve encountered deploying femtocells?
For a large scale, highly technical solution such as femtocells, testing always takes longer than wanted. Some of the technical product issues we’ve overcome include the RF design of the femtocell (which is always something of a black art) and thermal engineering to ensure silent reliable operation - our femtocell doesn’t have a fan or other moving parts.
As we’ve deployed the system, there are many aspects to consider for example ensuring compatibility with the many different models of routers and modems in end users homes and offices. Sometimes the femtocell can be seen as a peer-to-peer device, which affects the way ISPs handle the traffic. Femtocell operators may need to have discussions with their national ISPs so that the traffic isn’t shaped or degraded.
From this experience, we’ve added features to ensure users experience on femto is always a great one, one of these is matching service delivered to available DSL backhaul bandwidth. If slower or limited wireline broadband internet is available, then fewer calls are handled by the femtocell. This can be complex to explain to a customer and so is much easier if the mobile operator and ISP are the same company.
It’s possible that some ISPs may offer a femto quality broadband service in the future, possibly at a premium price, in the same ways as gaming grade broadband service is offered.
We’ve also put a lot of effort into development of self-organizing features which include interference management. Our solution is quite sophisticated and doesn’t create whitespace or black holes of coverage.
What’s your view of the femtocell market today?
The first year of femtocell deployments were really about technical trials – did they do “what they say on the tin”, and not cause interference, are they really secure, or is there any other technical problems. We are now passed this stage.
This year, the question is more about the business model, and go-to-market value proposition. We are helping our customers in this area with the Alcatel-Lucent Wilson Street program [Ed Note: later discontinued] I think some 10 to 20 additional operators could launch commercial femtocell service before the end of 2010. Half of these will be significant, major networks.
The forecast of 1 million femtocell shipments before the middle of 2010 (made by Nigel Toon of picoChip at MWC) should not be an unrealistic number. If this were the case, Alcatel-Lucent would have a good share.
Once we start achieving serious volumes, the industry can make further economies of scale and head towards lower price points.
How are you addressing the Enterprise market?
Extending the zero touch approach to enterprise (or business) femtocells makes it possible for service providers channel partners to market business grade mobile service to most business customers. The lower price point of femtocells represents a huge business opportunity to sell new services to companies of all shapes and sizes.
We’ve demonstrated the Enterprise femtocell concept with the Alcatel-Lucent Omni-PBX, an office telephone switch that provides services to the handset when in the office. This currently works with both Android and Windows mobiles and would be applicable for larger businesses.
With this architecture, calls made in the office stay within the office, using a local breakout from the Enterprise femtocell. Although only a demo today, this could become a commercial product soon.
Any views on the Metro-Femto concept?
We shared our roadmap with analysts at Mobile World Congress. This includes a small cell for coverage in public areas, providing hotspot capacity. We’ll be offering a product shortly on this, reusing the same zero-touch principles developed for domestic femtocells.
We can’t just rebadge a domestic femtocell for this purpose. The unit will require additional features such as alarm management and remote health indicators.
Alcatel-Lucent has assembled a portfolio of small cell products that complement and collaborate with an operator’s existing network, while helping to solve problems such as finding suitable sites to locate new base stations. Metro-Femto should open up more locations where cell sites can be installed as they are less obtrusive, smaller, and easier to install.