Interview with Prof. Simon Saunders, Chairman of the Femtocell Forum

Simon Saunders Chairman Femto Forum Prof. Simon Saunders is Chairman of the Femto Forum. He reports on their progress against original objectives, looks ahead at technical standards for Release 9, and gives some insight into a new initiative to open up applications inside femtozones.

What’s the background to the Femto Forum?

When the femtocell concept was first developing, several vendors entered the market. Each had a different approach and used a slightly different architecture. These companies agreed to collaborate to avoid fragmentation to engage with operators and to submit their ideas into the standards bodies.

The Femto Forum was launched in June 2007 by the 7 founding members. Since then, membership has grown to almost 100 companies. The mix is shifting towards operators, who now comprise 40% and represent some 1.3 Billion mobile subscribers.

What are the aims of the Forum?

We have three primary objectives:

  1. Building an eco-system, and not just of femto access point vendors. Our members provide everything from timing references, chips, reference designs, gateways to software solutions.
  2. Promote market knowledge within the industry. Often whole organisations need to be brought up to speed with current thinking and capabilities of femtocells. In the future, this will extend to ensuring end users understand the potential.
  3. Drive the standards. The Forum is not a standards body. Through our working groups, we:
a. Understand the market requirements and use cases
b. Liaise with 3GPP,3GPP2 and other standards bodies
c. Although we don’t directly create technical inputs for those bodies, we focus the priorities of our members and encourage them to collaborate and contribute joint papers, building voluntary consensus.

How successfully has the Femto Forum met these objectives so far?

It’s really gone further than my expectations.

In 2008, we removed the barriers to early introduction and achieved recognition in the wider market.

In Standards, 3GPP didn’t even have a work item for femtocells at the start of the year – only a feasibility study. Although the priorities of LTE in Release 8 were higher than femtocells, the forum worked through our members to incorporate several significant changes to the Release 8 specifications due to be frozen by the end of 2008. Specifically, the standards now allow for a new class of device.

I am really pleased with the progress so far.

We also achieved harmonisation on the Iuh interface (which connects femtocells and femto gateways). We had expected to make progress, but not fully agree on a single approach. When I started with the Forum, I’d spoken to chairs of similar technical forums to see what to expect regarding harmonisation and timescales. They told me that there comes a time when any decision is better than no decision.

Fortunately, we found the operators gave very clear signals regarding their requirements, and this helped to reduce the timescale to achieve a best-of-breed  Iuh general architecture down to a few weeks.

In November 2008, we also published our interference study. Operators had been asking “Do femtocells break the macro network?”. The report proposes several techniques and provided these have been implemented in the femtocell, allow for:

  • Enhanced performance  for both femto and macro users
  • Dense/high capacity
  • No changes to the macro-cellular network or handsets

In the early stages of femtocell deployment, operators don’t want to provide modified handsets or change their macro networks.

In Release 8, the standards now include UMTS handset optimisations for future models. The first standards for UMTS femtocells are included in this first release and also include the foundations for LTE femtocells. Although the Iuh details are agreed in the standard, this isn’t the same as interoperability between different vendors’ products.

Looking ahead into 2009, what’s next?

We want to enable the ramp-up of femtocell deployments.

Interoperability: There will be an active interoperability program (testing interworking between different vendors’ femtocells and gateways) towards the back end of 2009.

Femto enabled services: How to get developers creating new services specifically taking advantage of femtocells.

We’ll be working with organisations with relevant skills and standards for applications within the home. The Forum is unique in being able to work across the various standards bodies including 3GPP, WiMAX and 3GPP2. We are looking at a specific initiative that develops services which take advantage of the key attributes of a femtozone:

  • location enabled – you know exactly where you are
  • unconstrained bandwidth – high performance voice and data
  • personal devices – individual and tailored to personal preferences

What are the obstacles delaying femtocell adoption?

Some analysts have been asking why there are delays. But we are meeting the original timeframe:

  • Initial Trials in 1H 2008
  • Customer Experience Trials 2H 2008
  • Deployment end 2008, early 2009

But there are challenges ahead. For example, regulators could delay things. However, there are positive signs – in Japan the situation looks to be resolved (previously a trained technician must visit to install any mobile phone cellsite, even a femtocell, including switching it on and off). We do need clarity from regulators on some minor areas – this is not a huge issue, more of a tidying up.

Which region will be first adopters of femtocells?

When the forum started 18 months ago, I really had thought Europe would be first. But now we’ve seen strong activities both the US and Japan – it’s really too close to call.

Any thoughts on the Iuh versus SIP architectures?

Everyone wants to see an IMS-based architecture option in the long term. Iu was a priority for Release 8. In Release 9 (2009) we want to see progress towards an IMS compliant architecture. 3GPP2 operators are aggressive on IMS. Where operators have strong reasons for either choice, then the Forum will support them.

Our 2009 objectives include:

  • Exploring greater femtocell opportunities including Enterprise
  • Addressing the critical factors for next-generation femtocells
  • Progress on interoperability

There has been much faster/quicker interest than we expected.

You presented at an LTE conference recently. What was the general feeling about LTE femtos?

Compared to a year ago, when delegates were asking what a femtocell was, there is now a general acceptance that femtocells are an integral part of the LTE solution. A lot of work is needed for the Release 9 standard, although the concepts are in place. I believe that economic factors will encourage a femtocell approach to LTE deployment.

And finally, as we look ahead into 2009, what are your own top priorities for the next 6 months?

We will be putting a lot of effort into Mobile World Congress.

We’ll also be putting more emphasis on the economic aspects of femtocells, explaining the benefits of the different business cases.

Our members will be working to finalise the remaining details of the 3GPP release 8 standard.

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