Femtocell Opinion, comment and reviews

2008 Femtocell End of year Report Card

Report Card At the end of every school year, it’s normal for children to return home with a written report on their effort and attainment. We’ve given marks for the femtocell industry overall, with some suggestions for 2009. If it’s bad news, best for the child to immediately disappear up to study arduously – if it’s good, then celebrations all round. I’d say the femto industry can give itself a well deserved “pat on the back” and raise a glass for its achievements this year.

 

Overall: Very good progress and attention to detail.

Didn’t meet expectations given by some of the more enthusiastic commentators, but overachieved on many industry expectations. Special marks for achieving industry consensus around standards.

Technical

Several vendors have commercially applicable products, others are rapidly catching up. Operator trials have produced mixed results – operators are naturally very conservative/cautious, and there appear to be several specific areas where more refinement would help. The early commercial launches of 2G CDMA femtocells in the USA appear to have gone reasonably well. More work is required to convince operators that there isn’t a technical issue around interference for 3G femtos (this was recently addressed by a femto forum study report).

Standards

The Femto Forum has done well to ensure that the industry enters the standards meetings with one voice. There remain two architecture options – one directly compatible with todays 3G GSM/UMTS core network and services, the other targeting the future IMS/SIP based solution. The first is now effectively completed within 3GPP Release 8, although interoperability between femtocell vendors will need testing and clarification before entirely complete. This is tremendous progress when compared with the position at the start of 2008.

Commercial product

Several independent vendors have been making announcements demonstrating that they have the manufacturing capacity to fulfil large orders. Packaging and operator branding of products (e.g. different formats, colours etc.) are available. New femtocell vendors have appeared on the scene, some with more convincing/complete products than others.

The award of the first set of contracts for commercial supply, together with various reports of operator RFPs (Request for Proposals – asking vendors to quote prices and functionality of their solutions), suggests this is proceeding as best as might be expected. Many partnerships have been signed, including incorporation of femtocell modules within broadband modems, interworking with femto gateways and reference designs.

Cost

Operators have set very demanding price points, which won’t be achieved until volumes dramatically increase (what we call a “chicken and egg” conundrum in the UK). Prices for complete units are said to be below $200 already, with the target $100 achievable within 18 months (depending on volume shipped). Dedicated “System on a Chip” chipsets from picoChip and Percello should further reduce basic costs in the next iteration.

Business Case

More effort required. The primary and original case for femtocells based around domestic  use, solving poor indoor coverage and offloading demanding data services, remain valid. Additional opportunities in the enterprise (SOHO and SME businesses) are commonly being talked of, although this encroaches on the picocell market space. A third avenue called “metro-femto”, where femtocells are used to rollout 4G LTE networks has been established. The industry is not yet completely convinced about the business case – more work is needed to articulate the benefits, backed up with realistic numbers.

Marketing

Could do better. I’d say the industry has been primarily marketing to operators, often in competitive environment and behind closed doors. It has achieved a lot of buzz, attention and hype at various trade shows. The end users/customers have not been getting much attention – this has improved in the last 3 months. Since there is rarely anything for end users to buy yet, this is perhaps understandable. But I’m still surprised at how few people in the industry have heard of femtocells (although the same can sometimes be said about LTE, the new 4G technology!). Needs more attention on the business case during 2009.

Competitive

The primary competitor for femtocells is WiFi, specifically the UMA standard which can handover calls between 2G/3G and WiFi. UMA requires special handsets, which until recently have been fairly limited and restricted to 2G. Although its been around for a few years, it seems only the last year that we’ve seen more and more handsets with WiFi appear – and low power WiFi at that. More of these devices are becoming UMA capable, including a Blackberry. A key benefit of UMA compared to femtocells is that any WiFi access point can support UMA for any operator , subject only to the operator’s policies. 2009 will be a deciding year to determine whether operators choose UMA or femtocells. The more distinctive USPs (Unique Selling Points) that the femtocell industry can muster during this period, the more likely they will win a majority.

 

Femtocell Report Card

Subject
Mark
Comment
Technical  A Working products in live trials, 2G CDMA femtocells live commercially
Standards  A+ 3GPP Release 8 standards incorporate initial femtocell standards
Commercial  A Wide variety of partnerships, agreements
Cost  B Pricepoint will reflect volume of orders placed, which still seems to be low
Business Case  C There are still doubts about the overall business value outside the coverage and enterprise. This convincing is essential to achieve mass market penetration.
Marketing  B Good amount of buzz/hype, especially at tradeshows, but still at early awareness stage – many articles in the press only now introducing the technology, many in the industry haven’t heard of the term.
Competitive  B With more phones incorporating WiFi (and UMA), will need to establish leadership position in 2009.

Predictions for 2009

  • Commercial launches, more in the second half of 2009
  • SIP/IMS femtocell architecture adopted in US and Japan
  • 3GPP standards incorporate SIP/IMS femtocell protocols in Release 9
  • Prices reduce to $150 by the end of the year, but don’t reach the target $100 till 2010
  • Business case is better articulated. Several new applications unveiled. Tie-ups with iPhone, Google Phone and Windows demonstrate applications for “the connected home”
  • “Over the top” WiFi-style services, such as Fring and TruPhone, will become more popular – driven by greater focus on cost cutting and improved 3G data rates/quality.
  • LTE femtocells won’t become reality until at least 2011, operators will continue to prepare and roll out initially using traditional macrocellular basestations.

 

You may also be interested to read what Prof. Simon Saunders, Chairman of the Femto Forum, thought of progress to date in his interview with us here .

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