Femtocell Opinion, comment and reviews

Happy Families for Femtocells at Mobile World Congress

logo_mwc_10It's happy families at Mobile World Congress, as more than one femtocell integrator expands their range of femtocells on offer. Is the femtocell interoperability standard taking shape?

Up to now, femtocell suppliers have restricted their customers to a single device - either their own or from a single partner. As the industry matures, we are seeing the choice expand.This includes announcements from NEC that they will resell Airvana in addition to Ubiquisys femtocells, while ALU appear to have added a couple of Far Eastern vendors to their fold - they were displaying other femtocell formats on their stand. Meanwhile, the range of femtocells and formats from existing vendors grows.

The position I heard from a few different sources was that operators were prepared to launch femtocell services today on the basis that products were software upgradable to the Iu-h standard in the future. As with any new standard, it's not 100% unambiguous, but the interworking between different gateways and femtocells (including the operations and configuration management) has simplified things tremendously.

Alcatel-Lucent

Probably the most committed RAN vendor to Femtocells, ALU have the benefit of a range of other high volume consumer electronics in their portfolio. Up to now, they've rebadged a femtocell from SAGEM. This is used by Vodafone UK for their Sure Signal offer.

ALU had a couple of different formats of femtocells on their stand which appear to be sourced from a couple of other Far Eastern vendors.

SAGEM

This company supplies Alcatel-Lucent with the femtocell hardware as used by Vodafone UK and others today. It’s quite a complicated relationship – ALU have written the telecoms software that run on it.

Sagem are very good at high volume domestic electronics – being number 1 for both ADSL modems in Europe, and number 1 for IPTV set top boxes.

Since I saw their stand at Femtocell World Summit last summer, they’ve been very busy. There were three new boxes on show:

  • A new version of the existing standalone femtocell. It uses the later picoChip hardware (PC3xx series), is about 50% smaller, consumers 50% less power (about 7W) but goes much faster (14.4Mbit/s).
  • A combined ADSL modem, WiFi access point and Femtocell, also with VoIP and FXS ports so you can plug in your existing standard landline phone. This model (named 4704) is bigger and thinner. A key point is that it isn’t just 2 modules/boards stuck in the same box, but a single PCB design that’s fully integrated. The remote management console (using TR.069 protocol) can view, change and reset all parts of the box.
  • A combined TV Set Top Box and femtocell. This 5201 model combines Digital TV, IPTV and uses the built in video encoder to transcode the flow and send to the mobile in a format more suitable for the small screen. This brings mobile TV into the home, both live and IPTV under the control of the network provider. It doesn't have an ADSL modem included, instead connecting through Ethernet.

When I mentioned ALU's other new femtocell vendors, Sagem were confident that they would continue to supply much of the product for the European market.Their new integrated formats and proven field experience give them a further advantage.

NEC

For a fully integrated home gateway with all the options, NEC’s latest prototype would be hard to beat. Although not supporting IPTV, it did have everything else you could think of:

  • ADSL modem
  • WiFi
  • Router
  • VoIP
  • Femtocell
  • FXS (for a standard POTS landline phone)
  • DECT (for your cordless phones)
  • USB port for a memory stick

I sensed this was built to allow operators to play around with the various technical options they’d like to offer, and can then be cost optimised to suit particular markets.  NEC have also recently announced they will be reselling Airvana’s UMTS HubBub femtocell, in addition to the Ubiquisys models provided to date [Update: Since withdrawn because Airvana withdrew from the UMTS business, refocussing on 3G CDMA instead].

Huawei

No sign of any femtocell on their (large) stand. This is a very large and diverse company, now the Number 2 mobile infrastructure company worldwide with some 20% market share and they had a range of different capabilities on show. Their telepresence video conferencing system was extremely realistic (but I didn’t quite understand what it has to do with mobile). They also had a 3G connected digital picture frame (not sure why WiFi wouldn’t be more appropriate here). When I used the F word (femtocell that is), the particular representative I spoke to hadn’t heard of this technology yet.

Network Norway offers Enterprise Femtocells

Up to now, we’ve really only seen (mostly large) mobile network operators publicly trial and launch femtocell services. A new angle comes from Network Norway, a small GSM operator with limited footprint solving the in-building coverage problem for enterprises in the main cities it operates in.

When in the office, calls are routed through the femtocells; when outside they use their own GSM network and in other parts of the country roam on Telenor’s network. Presumably this will use Ubiquisys self-organising/optimising enterprise grid features and Kineto Wireless enterprise femtocell gateway capabilities too. This approach might allow an innovative, small operator to compete in the enterprise market with relatively little investment (assuming they have access to some licensed spectrum).

Definitely one to watch.

 

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