Femtocell Opinion, comment and reviews

Femtocell Craze at Mobile World Congress 2009

Barcelona Fira Exhibition Noticeably fewer delegates attended Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last week. I wasn’t there either, so point you to a few writeups from those who were (and some who also weren’t). By all accounts, femtocells were one of the main themes and there was plenty of excitement at the joint Femtozone stand. (The photo is one I took at the event a couple of years ago).

I'd say the three hot topics of the show overall were:

  • LTE: How quickly will this 4th Generation technology be deployed? Whilst Verizon Wireless is pressing ahead strongly (announcing its vendor selection of Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson), others such as Vodafone see a lot of mileage left in 3.5G with HSPA+ proving it can achieve real-life data rates towards 20Mbit/s
  • Applications: The iPhone is undoubtedly a disruptive innovation. It isn't just the touch screen operation or built in motion sensor that's radical, but that over 500M applications have been downloaded from the iTunes AppStore. Customers have spent much more on the applications than expected. Almost everyone seems to be lauching their own AppStore, both handset vendors like Nokia and operators themselves.
  • Femtocells: Clearly being seen as a major change to the industry - people want to know how the technology, trials and business case are evolving.

Undoubtedly the best show report with a femtocell orientation comes from Andy Tiller of ip.access. He reports separately on what operators said plus writes about significant vendor announcements and other news in his weekly update

Several wireless operators revealed their launch plans and gave some insight into the results of their customer trials.

  • ATT Wireless confirmed they will launch their 3G microcell later this year, possibly using a Cisco box that combines femtocell, set-top box and router
  • T-Mobile will start a controlled customer trial in Germany in the middle of 2009   
  • TIM Italy reported the results of a 50 home femtocell trial. It appears that many users continue to use mobile broadband when at home, even in preference to their WiFi.
  • Orange are targeting femtocells for their enterprise customers (but retain UMA/WiFi for domestic market)

Key vendor announcements

Filtering through the noise of large numbers of press releases:

  • Qualcomm are entering the femtocell chipset space, with plans to develop dedicated versions for both HSPA+ and CDMA to become available next year.
  • picoChip have responded to the market demand for higher capacity femtocells for the enterprise market. A reference design will handle 8 concurrent sessions, up from the 4 channels offered on most mainstream femtocells today.
  • Kineto Wireless have implemented several “enterprise” features into their femto gateway, which particularly support groups of users, so that guests and employees can have separate privileges
  • Continuous Computing, who provide software stacks for femtocell vendors, claim to have a Release 8 standards compliant stack available which includings the Iu-h interface
  • Lime Microsystems announces availability of their 2nd generation femtocell RF chip suitable for both 3G, LTE and WiMAX
  • Ubiquisys femtocell is incorporated into SerComm home gateway. This is in addition to their supplier relationship with Netgear.

There were also a few announcements about partnerships between equipment vendors.

Summary

So what we are seeing is a gradual progression of the femtocell technology from technical prototype through customer trials to commercial launch plans.

I'm still seeing a number of comments about "where's the business case" but fewer regarding the concerns around macrocell interference. This doesn't mean the issue is completely solved (or that everyone is completely persuaded), but indicates that the consensus has moved on from the "will it work" stage.

There does seem to be a growing interest in launching femtocells for Enterprise customers (particularly small/medium sized businesses) first. Perhaps this is because these customers can accept a higher price point and deploying them may not involve so many different parts of the operators business. Total volumes for enterprise femtocells will be much less than for domestic use, but may provide an easier path to market.

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