Femtocell Opinion, comment and reviews

Femtozones offer personalised services at low cost, high performance

Femtozones enables the home Femtozones are additional services enabled within the coverage footprint of a femtocells. For our purposes, we’ve excluded any changes or updates to other equipment in the home which involves a much more integrated/managed network solution. All that’s required for a femtozone is to install and connect a 2G or 3G femtocell at the user’s home or office and connect it to broadband. This means that any of the main femtocell system architectures can be used to provide femtozones.

The term femtozone was first published (to my knowledge) by Andy Tiller of ip.access in January 2008.

Within a femtozone, several benefits and services can be offered to the customer. The basic benefits of good indoor coverage are already assumed to be available:

  • Excellent indoor coverage – filling in coverage dips in more remote or geographically challenged areas.
  • Higher indoor data performance, again due to improved RF performance - this will be much faster using 3G, but for small devices 2G GPRS at short range should be perfectly adequate.

Additional femtozone services can be grouped into several aspects:

  • Home zone tariffs – competitively priced against landline phones
  • Location based – services enhanced by knowing where you are
  • Presence – services advertising where you are
  • PC-independent wireless services - download/upload without a PC
  • Security – services restricted to operation only in the femtozone
  • Advertising – enabled by location and presence status

These are considered in turn below:

  • Home-zone tariffs. Operators have for many years offered location based tariff plans, where use of your mobile at designated locations is charged at a lower rate. The purpose of this is to encourage greater use of the mobile within the home and/or office, by competing on tariff plan against the fixed network operator. However, operators have sometimes not been able to discriminate and thus limit coverage to small area, for example where a location is served by several cellsites. This has led to a situation where the vast majority of calls are priced at the home-zone rate, losing additional margin that could be charged when outside the home or office. I’d expect these tariffs to be withdrawn in favour of femtozone packages, thus ensuring that usage outside the home/office is charged differently, reflecting the higher value of being able to use a mobile service in any location. This also locks in an entire household or business to a single mobile operator – again reducing the likelihood of churn because of the increased effort to switch suppliers. Studies have shown that typically 30-40% of mobile phone usage is in the home-zone in developed markets. This also drives consolidation into single packages for quad-play, including broadband, TV, fixed and mobile telephony.
  • Location based services. Typically the mobile phone or the service being used doesn’t know where you are calling from or where you are. Each femtocell has a unique cellsite identification number and would be registered to the owners address. Some femtocells have built in GPS receivers which serves several purposes – ensuring it is only used in the area where the operator has licensed spectrum, and is operating at the right frequency for that area. In either case, the end-user device would know or could determine the exact location of the caller, and use this to tailor the information provided. For privacy reasons, this information could be withheld or disabled by the user, but the benefits would be improved/quicker service or access to information when calling. Examples include service calls for taxi, pizza, home delivery, insurance quotes etc. When calling from landline/fixed phones, reverse lookup does permit some of these businesses to determine your address (taxi firms often have this capability). By providing this when using a mobile phone, it gives more confidence to the service provider, and allows them to confirm delivery time, price etc more quickly and accurately.
  • PC independent data services. These typically use PC’s today, downloading or uploading data to a portable device via the PC. Femtozones can enable data synchronisation seamlessly without using the PC. With the data held externally, the user can independently access and choose images, podcasts and feeds for download wirelessly when in range. Considering each direction separately:
    • Upload data synchronisation. This includes uploading and backing up data from the users mobile phone or other devices, such as photographs. These would be uploaded at zero additional cost to internet sites, such as Flickr, which prevents data loss and allows sharing and printing of images from any computer. Other data upload could include address book/diary, although these often benefit from access when away from home.
    • Download data synchronisation. This includes refreshing podcasts, video, news feeds and other subscribed data services for consumption during the day. Effectively delivering an electronic “newspaper” to your portable device seamlessly, without needing to boot up a PC or physically plug-in/dock the portable device.
  • Security applications. Devices may be shipped which can only be reconfigured when attached to the home femtocell. Some services (e.g. financial transactions) may be set to only operate when at home, or require additional security checks when used from other locations.
  • Presence: Advertising your presence to external applications may or may not be a good thing. Do you want burglars to know when you are in and out of your home? Examples quoted include monitoring senior citizens in sheltered accommodation, but could potentially be extended to include workplaces. However, it does rely on the mobile phone being switched on when arriving/leaving, and thus would not be as accurate as door card entry systems.
  • The huge market in internet advertising (forecast to double from $40Bn to $80Bn during 2008) is expected to spill over into the mobile market. Careful presentation and filtering will be important to avoid impinging on end-users privacy, but with the customer’s permission then advertising which is aware of your location and presence may be more acceptable and effective.

Some other more unusual possibilities for femtozones include:

  • Roaming-only networks in hotels and conference centres. In the UK, a set of frequencies were auctioned off in the GSM guard band to a variety of companies. These could be install and operate femtocells in specific locations by arrangement of the site owner, and offer discounted calls competing with the major operators. Customers would have to manually select the hotel’s service, but in some basement locations the stronger signal would be automatically selected (depending on the home network’s preferences).
  • Home-only tariffs. Differs from home-zone discount, this is intended for devices (not just phones) that are primarily connected on the network at home, although have the capability to work anywhere there is network coverage. Uses could include uploading photos from digital cameras, which only do this when returned to base.
  • Roaming only networks in aircraft. A controversial idea for some, who prefer the peace and quiet without mobile phones when in the air. Data access via the users own device in the aircraft could include texting, email and podcast refresh etc, tailored to the user’s preferences.
  • Tracking of equipment or personnel. A passive mobile phone device could detect if it has been moved out of the range of its femtozone, and automatically send an alert via the macrocellular mobile phone network (or stop sending one via the femtozone).
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