Femtocell Opinion, comment and reviews

Coffee, Croissants and Femtocells

Coffee and Femtocells I’ve been struck recently by the number of places offering free WiFi these days. Pubs, cafés, hotels, guest houses – why even MacDonalds has equipped over 15,000 stores globally with Free WiFi .  In the future, will these establishments advertise femtocell access with your coffee and croissant (or burger)?

WiFi is wonderful when it works well. It was originally designed for use over short range, and didn’t handle dense, co-located access points or heavy concentrations of users. There was no dynamic power control or automatic frequency channel selection. This has improved with later versions of the standard, but there are still issues reported in densely populated areas and travel interchanges. A common scenario is for the laptop to be used at home with a WiFi connection to the internet and printer.

Additionally, when travelling, if you happen to be in the right place at the right time, you can get very good service. It can be helpful to access your email, download files or lookup information when on the move. Many hotels are now moving away from providing “cables in the drawer” to entirely WiFi service, and this can be a competitive advantage.

But there are issues with WiFi on the move though. For one thing, I’ve found the quality can vary widely often rendering it worse than useless. Try it out in the middle of a busy airport with high congestion (and interference) levels – it works more effectively when standing next to the access point. Variable performance like this can be very frustrating, especially if you’ve paid a fixed fee up front for what might be a short time. It also drains your batteries more rapidly than cellular radio systems - a particular issue for smaller devices such as smartphones.

There are also a couple of major security issues:

  • How often are you asked to login and give your precious credit card details? It’s actually quite easy to setup a spoof internet access site and capture these details from unsuspecting travellers. Even if you have a subscription to a WiFi provider with roaming agreements, such as The Cloud,  it’s still possible for unscrupulous types to capture your login details.
  • By default, all traffic carried over the public WiFi service is unencrypted and can be intercepted. Access to secure webpages (using HTTPS) would be encrypted end-to-end, as would anyone logged into their corporate VPN.

Using mobile data via your mobile phone network provider avoids those problems. Security is built in using a SIM card in your data dongle or modem, which automatically identifies you and encrypts all data transferred over the air. This usually means it’s quicker to connect when away from home – ideal for those short snatches of data access whilst waiting when travelling.

The low cost, fixed price and wide availability of mobile data has resulted in a dramatic takeup and use of this service. Recent studies by the University of Helsinki reported that over 92% of data sent over mobile networks is from laptops (rather than smartphones), and 95% of mobile data goes directly to the internet.

This is a different phenomenon to the growth of video traffic on the internet itself. Although home media servers might chew up lots of internet bandwidth, streaming video and downloading programs for viewing on the TV (rather than the laptop), I believe this is unlikely to be done wirelessly. Too much data capacity would be required, making it too costly – a situation likely to get worse with HDTV.

So we can expect the adoption of mobile data on laptops to grow. We’ve argued before that the femtocell offers a data offload solution for the wrong type of data – laptops used at home can more effectively access the internet using existing low cost WiFi, without the need to use any services from the mobile network operator.

So there are perhaps three options for connecting your laptop to the internet: Home, Oasis and Desert:

  • At Home (or other location under your control). Use wired Ethernet broadband or WiFi to a broadband modem as it common today.
  • At an Oasis (a place where nomads stop to drink – or where you can get a data topup on demand). Today, use WiFi – in the future could use a femtocell, specifically to avoid problems with security, capacity and ease of use.
  • In the Desert (where the only access is cellular wireless). Today, cellular operators have a monopoly on this, but have priced it attractively. Competition from metro-WiFi deployments has failed. WiMax will be challenging the incumbents here, and their success will be based on factors such as spectrum allocation (higher frequencies will need more cellsite locations) and availability (it will cost billions to match the coverage of cellular operators today).

Mobile networks have effectively "flooded the desert" and allow those parched with a thirst for data an ability to connect almost anyplace, anytime. 

Assuming laptop users do continue to change their behaviour and use mobile data service from cellular operators when out and about in the desert, would they perceive some benefit from any coffee shops or other establishments who install femtocells?

One issue is that femtocells are designed to operate as part of only one mobile operator’s network. They use only that operator’s licenced frequencies. So, although roaming subscribers from other foreign networks might be able to use it (at their standard roaming rates), it’s not going to be applicable for the majority of data consuming customers. In a country with 4 different network operators, café owners would need to operate 4 separate femtocells to deliver an equivalent service.

Therefore, I’d speculate that if free WiFi was on offer, there probably isn’t a benefit from femtocells. There may be benefit to a mobile operator, who could offload some potentially heavy localised data useage to lower cost with its own backhaul – but it would only affect that one operator. This is different to the scenario today, where an Oasis offers a service to the data starved who can’t easily get access outside.

Either femtocells would need to become multi-operator devices, logically supporting several networks (which macrocellular basestations can do today). Or the femtocell would be run as a separate, independent indoor network to which all users on different networks could roam into. Both cases involve substantial amount of engineering development and operational work, where the alternative is simply to continue to use the existing outdoor networks.

Unfortunately, not a compelling business case to sell femtocells to coffee shops then.

Mine’s a large, hot, wet, skinny latte by the way.

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