Femtocell Opinion, comment and reviews

Did you get a Small Cell or a Smartphone for Christmas?

Christmas PresentThe holiday season has seen the usual flood of presents and gifts between family and friends. Billions of dollars has been spent on smartphones and tablets. This popular category of gift is suitable for all ages, whether the latest upgrade for a seasoned user, a major transition from a voice & text 2G cellphone or a sideways move from an App oriented Wi-Fi only iPod.

Observing the reactions from both ends of the spectrum – from real geeks to cautious newcomers - has been quite enlightening over the last couple of weeks. Coverage and usage costs typically aren't well understood and I suspect very few (if any) Small Cells will have been given as presents. Here, we offer some observations of our own which may not be statistically significant, and may not be entirely relevant to your own country/operator, but highlight some of today's ongoing industry challenges.

The ubiquity of smartphones

For new adopters, there is still some fear and intrepidation of using such powerful and highly functional devices. This may seem strange to those of us who use them every day, but there is a delight in seeing the excitement of one taking their first "selfie" photo, listening to their music library when travelling, checking email when away from home or completing their first proper WhatsApp chat.

Today's choice of smartphone is primarily between the Apple iOS and Android camps which dominate overall sales. Then it's down more to form factor, performance and features. I believe few mainstream users can differentiate between Android releases (Jelly Bean vs Ice Cream Sandwich) and there seems little demand for LTE today (here in the UK anyway) among late adopters. UK operator EE reports 2 million LTE subscriptions (out of 25 million total), still less than 10% but claimed to be growing the fastest of anywhere outside Korea. Online reviews can be comprehensive but not particularly helpful for those less familiar with the technology. Prices for the latest unlocked prepaid phones vary by more than 50% between stores. Tariff plans for contract phones remain much more difficult to compare. Unlocked basic 2G prepaid phones can still be bought for less than £1.

Smartphones reinforce the wider range of communication methods we use today. Voice is in decline, having been substituted by email, Facebook and other chat applications. One computer programmer friend reports monthly smartphone usage of over 2GBytes data but less than 20 minutes voice. Digging further, that's partly due to poor voice coverage at his home – something that could be fixed easily by a residential small cell or perhaps by changing network operator. It surprised me to hear that he wasn't on a particularly good tariff plan. I wondered if the task of transferring to a different network could be further encouraged by including a small cell to ensure good indoor service. It would certainly avoid those frequent call drops and poor voice quality when we do talk.

Walk out working

Both of the smartphones I bought from different stores came with a free SIM card installed and were ready to go. These were both completely new accounts with new phone numbers. The 3 sizes of SIM card (standard, micro and nano) mean that you can't simply swap these around as easily as you used to.

Many cellphone shops have adopted a policy of configuring and setting up smartphones so that customers can leave the store with the phone fully operational. This involves a combination of details being entered into a retail computer terminal and configuration data being sent to the device by SMS. In most towns, good cellular reception means that's rarely a problem but I have heard of some rural stores in the US where there is no indoor cellular reception and staff have to walk out to the street to obtain a cellphone signal to complete the provisioning process. That's not particularly confidence building yet could be easily solved with an instore Small Cell.

Phone lines to the operator's call centre during the holiday season were overloaded, but when I got through I was surprised that the account couldn't simply be switched across to the new SIM card. I had to request a replacement SIM by post which took a few days, after which the transfer process was quick and seamless. The replacement SIM was a nano-SIM with adaptors to fit both the larger sizes – something that gets around this problem in future. The hassle did have me seriously considering whether I should just ask for a PAC code and transfer the number to another provider.

Personal Information Sharing

One of the first things that people do is download a whole host of free Apps to try them out. Games, Social, Travel... whatever takes your fancy. The bundle of pre-installed free trial Apps resembled those that come with a Dell Laptop, so a bit of cleaning up and deleting was needed at an early stage.

What you notice when setting up and beginning to use these are the large number of opt-in agreements to accept for sharing your personal data and especially your location. I can't imagine many people actually read these in full. There is now more detail and clarity on exactly what type of information each App is asking for. For example, why a Solitaire game should need full access to your contacts address book baffled me – so that one didn't get downloaded.

But you can go further. The Fitbug Orb tracks every step taken, including monitoring sleep patterns, and can report this together with your diet to your life insurance company. The reward for healthy lifestyle can be lower premiums but these gadgets are getting far too close to a "1984" scenario for some.

Battery life

All these Apps have a major impact on Battery Life.

It's a major shock to those who were used to about 2 weeks standby on a 2G GSM phone to learn that a smartphone has to be recharged every night. One drained overnight from ~80% to ~40% for no obvious reason. The phone specification states several hundred hours standby time, but that's simply not being achieved. Regular overnight recharging and a carphone charger accessory become essential.

Forbes magazine believes that battery life will be the next battleground but it focuses on battery performance and capacity. I think we should concentrate more on radio consumption and App efficiency, which could have a much greater effect.

Wi-Fi has an important role to play here, but can drain battery if used inefficiently when out and about. This power saving benefit of a Small Cell can easily be overlooked.

Data Consumption

One of the first questions asked in cellphone shops is what your monthly usage pattern is. The trouble is, few who are new to smartphones have any idea. There are a whole set of factors from what types of App are used, the lifestyle of the user and whether they bother to setup and use Wi-Fi at home.

3rd party bill analysis services such as Bill Monitor, which crunches your monthly bills and determines whether you are on the right plan or not, can be very useful. Comparatively few are aware of these services and even fewer bother to make use of them. Identifying which of their 12 categories of user you fit into helps a lot to determine the right tariff plan.

The difference a Small Cell makes

For the typical non-expert user, I'd argue that there are two major differences that could be made to improve service and reduce cost.

  • One is to automate the configuration of Wi-Fi so that this is seamlessly accessed at home and some public venues. This is more common in North America than Europe and elsewhere, with Wi-Fi being actively enabled without any user interaction. Some of this could be managed using the new HotSpot 2.0 capability, but other solutions are needed to handle a wider range of devices and locations. There will be some who would prefer to disable Wi-Fi completely when away from home (or even all the time), and for those the management of the Wi-Fi feature will be important.

  • A second is to make end users more aware of Small Cells and offer them as part of their next upgrade. Prices of Small Cells compare favourably with the heavy subsidies of many smartphones, while providing a clear differentiation. There are still many, like my friend above, who can't make or receive good quality cellular phone calls at home.

This growing adoption of smartphones across to the late majority, together with deeper usage by existing subscribers reinforces the trend to ever greater data traffic capacity required. This will need to be delivered efficiently without ever higher demands on smartphone batteries and at high quality, especially for voice quality and higher speed video services.

I think it will be quite some time before a Small Cell becomes the long awaited Christmas present at home, but it is an important component to deliver the full potential that smartphones are capable of. Now that I'm back at work, I've already suffered a couple of poor quality/dropped mobile phone calls with people who have poor service in their office. Perhaps the ideal business gift for next Christmas should be that helpful Enterprise Small Cell.

 

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    Residential

    Residential

    A significant number of users continue to report poor mobile coverage in their homes. There will always be areas which are uneconomic for mobile operator to reach. They range from rural areas

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    Enterprise

    Enterprise

    The term Enterprise addresses any non-residential in-building including hotels, convention centres, transport hubs, offices, hospitals and retail outlets. It's not just intended for businesses to

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    Urban

    Urban

    Urban small cells (sometimes also named metrocells) are compact and discrete mobile phone basestations, unobstrusively located in urban areas. They can be mounted on lampposts, positioned on the

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    Rural

    Rural

    A rural small cell is a low power mobile phone base station designed to bring mobile phone service to small pockets of population in remote rural areas. These could be hamlets, small villages or

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