Femtocell Operator News and Opinons

Have Vodafone rushed their femtocell launch?

Although Vodafone have launched their femtocell ahead of schedule, we found that they had done their homework by training sales staff, customer care and preparing a website page.  As with any accelerated launch, there have been some rough edges. There are undoubtedly some learning points for other operators here.

 

Buying a femtocell 

What retail channels are appropriate for selling femtocells? We'll ignore large/medium sized business customers -in the first instance, operators still seem to be targeting individual customers. These can be:

  • existing direct customers, who buy the product as an extra/add-on
  • existing customers who may be about to leave (perhaps because of poor coverage at home) and can be offered a femtocell to keep their business. These "sales" would be handled via the customer retention departments, who may be able to offer them free or at discounted prices to those calling up to terminate their contracts.
  • new customers, looking for a new phone package and who buy this as a bonus
  • existing indirect customers, such as those with a phone from their (large) business employer, who want/need better coverage at home.
 
With the exception of the customer retention department, other new and existing customers should be able to buy the femtocell
 
a) Outright
b) As part of a new package
c) As an upgrade to their existing contract
 
I'd also argue that these three options should be available from
 
a) Direct channels - a retail store owned by the operator
b) Indirect channels - a third party reseller
c) Online
d) By phoning the operator's sales team 
 
Oh, and don't forget - I'd like the product to be available to both contract and prepaid/contractless customers. Typically, we've seen operators offer them free as part of a monthly contract, but need to be bought outright by prepaid/contract-free users. 
 
That's actually quite a lot of options and quite a lot to achieve. Each retail channel needs training, and their systems need to be updated to handle the additional options.
 
Other types of products, such as new types of phone or even different tariff plans are often simply additional configurations, and so can be implemented by relatively minor updates to the billing and customer care systems. Femtocells are unusual in that they aren't just an accessory, but also need provisioning.

Stock Control and Shipping  

Operators such as Vodafone already have their own online shop in addition to branded stock held in each retail shop. Just as with any large retail business, complex software algorithms are used to calculate when and how many products to order and where to stock them.
 
The recent iPhone 3GS launch was a typical example where heavy demand on the launch days resulted in over 1 million units being sold in the first 3 days. Given the high numbers of mobile handsets being produced each year (over 1 Billion), manufacturers and operators retail channels are geared up for very high volumes.
 
You'd think that a few 10,000's of femtocells wouldn't be so much of a problem, but with uncertainty of the sales volumes, where and when they will be sold, some operators have chosen to be cautious about stock levels - hopefully the industry will quickly learn what levels are appropriate for a launch in the coming months. 

Vodafone have simplified their launch  

Vodafone have chosen to simplify things during their initial launch:
 
  • Femtocells are available online only as a standalone sale item
  • Femtocells are available to buy in their direct retail shops, including as part of a contract, but are shipped from their central warehouse.
  • There are no special calling rates/discounted calls with the Vodafone Access Gateway. This avoids any need to wait for major updates to the prepaid and contract billing systems. There is still a need to add this as a regular monthly fee to existing contracts, with all the associated special cases.
  • There's no link with any fixed line/cable broadband service, so sales and support are completely independent.
  • Femtocells are not pre-provisioned - a separate process is involved (see below).
  • There is no online update to change the white-listed phone numbers which can use the device - you have to call customer care to do so.
  • There's not a lot of sales collateral available - no brochure to handout in the stores, and no posters/adverts other than the press releases we've seen to the media generally (some of which have been picked up by mainstream media such as the BBC).

Some Rough Edges with the initial launch 

Some rough edges exist (in my view) relating to Vodafone's online store which have been disappointing: 
  
  • Stock levels are very low with product being shipped 10 days or more after ordering rather than the 24 hours currently quoted online and in the shops. There should have been more stock available at launch
  • You can view and order the product in their shops, but there is no stock to take away on purchase. In the US, Sprint displays their femtocell in their store windows. Whilst this might appear to some as an admission that their coverage isn't as good as the competition, it does provide them with competitive advantage.
  • Online sales pages haven't been updated to include the various inclusive offers available, instead (mis)directing you to  a generic phone sales page. The only online option is to buy the box outright. This may be due to other pending updates across the website overall.
  • The online order process is clunky and uninformative compared with Amazon or many Ebay traders. Unfortunately, I think this is a more general problem with the online store overall.
  • The product description states that the Gateway "works with any 3G phone". Although it may be obvious to our regular readers that this means "any 3G phone using a Vodafone UK SIM card", this is potentially misleading - customers might expect it to work with all the 3G phones in their house, even if with other network operators.
  • Customer care on their order line is very poor. Customers calling to check on delivery dates are simply told to "watch their email box" after 15 minutes on hold.
  • Provisioning is requested through a web form which can only be filled in on receipt of the product (you need its serial number), and can take up to 24 hours. It's unclear if provisioning requests are processed out of normal working hours (e.g. over the weekend).
 

...and some good points too 

The initial product page does include a simple optional broadband test to verify that you have the minimum recommended 1Mbit/s speed. Provided by Epitiro, this test requires your PC to have Java installed and automatically downloads it if you haven't. 

There is a link to check about upgrading your phone if you don't have a 3G model.

So don't underestimate the work involved in bringing a femtocell to market

There's a lot involved with any new product launch. Where it crosses boundaries (such as fixed/mobile), many different departments may become involved. Orange learnt a lot about this by offering their Uniq dual mode GSM/WiFi phone service which requires their wireline broadband service.

Those operators about to bring their own femtocell offers to market can learn a lot from those who have already launched, and choose which shortcuts they want (and don't want) to take to ensure success.  

Anyone have feedback on their Vodafone Access Gateway yet? 

We've not seen any reports from users who have actually bought and installed one yet, suggesting that volume of product shipped is extremely limited and/or is being heavily prioritised to existing high value customers/potential churners.

If you've bought one, please let us know what your "purchase experience" was like and how you've found it in operation.

Read on to find out about my first call using the Vodafone Access Gateway

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Comments   

#1 Keith Harman said: 
I went to my local shop a week ago to order up an Access Gateway. The salesperson I spoke to knew what it was and the various purchase options but it took another two salespeople and much discussion to work out how to actually place an order for it. I was told the Gateway would arrive in a couple of days.
The Gateway did not arrive in a couple of days so I contacted “Customer Care” via the phone to see what had happened. They told me that there was no record of the Gateway on my account so I would have to contact the shop direct. They gave me a number for the shop and I called it, only to be directed to an answering service saying that all the staff were busy serving customers but one of them would answer my enquiry as soon as possible. I left a message but no one called back so I contacted Customer Services via the Vodafone website. They sent back this rather unctuous message:

“ I would like to take this opportunity to sincerely apologise for all the inconvenience caused.
Having read your email I understand that you have ordered a Vodafone Access Gateway from your local Vodafone store on 9th July.
This order may be raised internally so there are no notes on the account stating about the order.
You need to go to the store once again and check out for the order.
I trust this helps.
I've also attached a short customer feedback questionnaire and would really appreciate your thoughts to help us improve our service and I can assure you, this will be treated in confidence. Just click here to start.
Warm Regards,”

I called the shop and again was diverted to the same answer service. I left a message but still no reply. I have since sent another email to “Customer Services” via the website All I have had back this time is a somewhat un-assuring email saying they will contact me within 5 working days.

Looking at your article it seems that I will have to wait at least 10 days for the femtocell to arrive and judging by the experience I have had to date I face the task of making the thing operational with some trepidation!
0 Quote 2009-07-17 10:06
 
#2 Thinkfemtocell said: 
Keith - thanks for sharing your experience with us - let us know how easy it is to get it working, and how it performs in use. (If r anyone else has bought one, please tell us your story too).

Whilst stocks were clearly very low at launch, so I would expect delivery times to improve rapidly quite soon. Unfortunately Vodafone's online shop doesn't show stock levels so you can't tell. When in stock, they normally ship within 24 hours.

You'll get an email saying its been dispatched (by 24 hour Special Delivery). Unless you wanted to order a new phone and contract at the same time, I'd suggest the easiest/quickes t option is just to order online. You won't be charged until shipment and can always send it back if you change your mind (within 7 days under UK Distance Selling Regulations).

Provisioning is clearly a technical problem at the moment. The process seems to be very clumsy and frankly takes far too long - but at least you know to allow a day or two before you can make calls.

Let us know how you get on.
0 Quote 2009-07-17 18:40
 
#3 Keith McMahon said: 
I ordered mine online on Wednesday and received an email that it was despatched on Friday and received at home on Saturday.

The ordering process was simplicity itself. It seems there is absolutely zero integration with other VF systems. This would explain the tariff options as well – I bought mine outright for £160. I was hoping for data traffic to be excluded from my data allowance – but it is impossible to do anything sophisticated if there is no billing integration.

Personally, I don't have a big problem with this approach – far too many interesting telco ideas are killed either pre-launch through the cost of integration into legacy systems or post-launch through not living up the hype generated by the marketing machines.

At this stage of the lifecycle, launching into the early-adopters with minimal systems & marketing effort seems sensible. It makes sense to only invest big time when the business case is proven, product teething problems are ironed out and the time is ripe for the mass market.

Effectively, this is the internet way and people like Google regularly launch early (with bugs) and then invest as popularity grows.

The femtocell is now setup – very easy – and awaiting provisioning. I don't hold much hope for it going live before Monday when the engineers return to work.
0 Quote 2009-07-18 14:50
 
#4 Keith Harman said: 
Having waited 10 days for my Access Gateway to arrive I visited my local Vodafone shop and asked when I could expect the Gateway to arrive. The salesman said that there was no need to wait as he now had a supply in stock. He handed one over saying if another arrived in the post then could I return it to the shop.
I registered the Gateway on line and received an email from Vodafone Gateway Trial (they ought to change that as it doesn’t inspire much confidence) saying they were processing my details but if I did not hear anything from them in the next 24 hours then contact them.
I heard nothing from them so rang the number the next day. They said they had been experiencing network problems but would process my details straight away. I was sent a SMS message saying I would be able to use the service in the next 24 hours. After 5 hours it was up and running and seems to be working well.
If Vodafone improves its stock control and provisioning processes it could have a useful product for those who have poor network coverage and therefore a motive to buy such an item for voice connectivity rather than any specific 3G services. I expect Vodafone will use the deployment to show improved 3G coverage to Ofcom when they carry out their recently announced research into mobile-broadban d speeds and other quality-of-serv ice issues such as so-called "not-spots", areas of poor or no reception.
0 Quote 2009-07-21 14:48
 
#5 Thinkfemtocell said: 
Thanks to both Keiths for your feedback. It's good to hear these products are now in the retail shops and that although you've had similar provisioning problems, once setup they seem to work OK. Let us know how you get on after using it for a while - I'm sure there are many interested to hear how well they work in practice.
0 Quote 2009-07-21 19:41
 
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