Turning off Femtocells

Image It may strike you as odd to think about how to turn femtocells off or dispose of them when the industry is doing its best to roll them out and turn them on. But every product has a lifecycle, and that includes working out what to do when the customer doesn’t pay up, or when the product reaches the end of its natural lifecycle. This wasn’t done when mobile phones first started being upgraded, leaving many unused in drawers or thrown into landfill refuse rather than being recycled.

First, let’s look at what can be done if a customer doesn’t pay their bills.

Most femtocells are likely to be sold with postpaid accounts, often tied to the wireline broadband service. Operators are hoping to capture both fixed and mobile revenues from households, with some family members on their own tariff plans or prepaid accounts. Terminating service on the femtocell won’t stop the mobile phones being used outside the home, so its continued operation will likely depend on the primary account holder.

Femtocells will mainly be linked with post-paid contracts, and incur early termination penalty fees just as with standard mobile phone contracts. 

Dunning

When customers don’t pay their bills, service providers automate the processes used to encourage and then enforce collection. This was first computerised by SAP, where the term dunning originates. Gentle reminders are sent after pre-defined periods, increasing in tone until legal action is taken. These systems are smart enough to avoid prosecuting very minor infringements, and delay where part payments have been taken.

Switching off a femtocell may become an initial step in the enforcement process for defaulters. It won’t stop the phone services being used outside the home, but will reduce the quality of service and coverage at home and strongly encourage the customer to pay up. This could be a step in the dunning procedure.

Prepaid users (sometimes called “contract free” in the US) are somewhat easier to manage. Automated, real-time systems simply terminate services when the user’s credit is exhausted.

No money = no service.

Being nicer to customers

We’ve seen operators introduce schemes for prepaid customers which offset this somewhat blunt approach:

  • A small “overdraft” or “reserve tank” of credit is made available when the main credit balance is depleted. This can be used for urgent calls, to call someone who might transfer credit or top-up your phone, or just the security of knowing that you have one or two calls left.
  • Free Please Call Me (PCM) text messages to your friends asking them to call you back- such as are offered by Vodafone Egypt and elsewhere
  • Calls to customer care and/or online top-up services are allowed.
  • Data users can be throttled back to much slower data rates when they exceed daily or monthly thresholds.

Emergency calls are almost always allowed in most countries, even with no credit.

So how do you cut-off a femtocell

Since the femtocell is connected into the operator’s network, the femto-gateways can be programmed to block access to any individual femtocell. This would be done by sending a de-activation request to the management system for the femto-gateway, which would pass it on. For those operators using SIM cards inside their femtocell (a proprietary scheme used by vendors such as Ubiquisys, but not adopted as part of the 3GPP standard), the associated subscription in the HLR can be deactivated.

Operators can remotely access a femtocell and change the white-list of phones allowed to use the device. I don’t see this being a worthwhile approach – it’s too costly and the end customer may not fully understand what’s going on. If there are extra features on the femtocell itself, these could be selectively disabled.

If the DSL or broadband line itself is blocked, then of course the femtocell would also be placed out of service. It could be moved to a friend’s or family home and continue to be used, subject to location lock or other restrictions.

An enforcement announcement

Another approach which could be used, but might backfire because it is simply too annoying, would be to inject an announcement before each call is made, warning that the account is in arrears and that service may be terminated.

Something like “Please be aware that the party you are calling hasn’t paid their bill and you may be cut-off at any time” should do the trick! (Of course, I'm not being very serious about this)

What happens when a customer terminates the femtocell service

There may be a variety of reasons why a customer chooses to terminate their contract. They may ask to stop all services, or just the femtocell. They may upgrade to a newer model. They may move house. Depending on the wording of the contract, the femtocell could be owned by the operator or the customer. The European Union directive on Waste of Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) require that in both cases the operator, who sold the product, is responsible for its final disposal and/or recycling. Other countries are also adopting more “Green” environmentally friendly policies.

In the medium to long term, we may see a second hand market for femtocells, but I think this relatively unlikely in the short term. It would need operators to have business processes that allow for configuration and testing of second hand femtocells that are connected by customers – something that is probably more expensive than simply shipping a new one.

However, if the volumes reach the levels predicted by some analysts (tens of millions), and femtocell access points truly become interoperable, then this could be commercially justified in a few years.


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