Femtocell Opinion, comment and reviews

Initial thoughts about femtocell activity at Mobile World Congress 2010

logo_mwc_10 Here’s a quick roundup from both press releases and some initial impressions of this years MWC in Barcelona. I’ll follow up on some of these comments in future posts, so keep an eye out.

Numbers seemed to me to be a bit down on previous years, but Tuesday and Wednesday are always the most popular days. Those attending are certainly very busy. External advertising is a little less ostentatious than before – for example, there are fewer branded taxis. Apple, Google don’t have stands (not new); Nokia and HP have instead hired venues nearby. Microsoft tried to hype their Windows Phone, but sorry – to me it just doesn’t have the same pizzazz as Apple or Google.

Femtozone

For a relatively small space, the Femto Forum is getting a lot of mileage. They’ve installed bench seats, a projector and a couple of glass display cabinets in the same area that many smaller companies would put just a table and a couple of chairs. With an extensive program of presentations and demos from industry figures, exhibitors can get a good update of the state of the industry and what vendors have to offer (without paying those high conference fees). Those glass cabinets have a growing number of real femtocells of diverse sizes, shapes and colours plus a range of small component boards showing off the latest prototypes. [The slightly dodgy wireless microphones highlighted the problems of operating in congested unlicensed frequencies too!]

Simon Saunders told me he thought everyone knows what a femtocell is by now, and has got through the basic questions of the last few years (will it work, interference etc.). He’s now being asked frequently to forecast future sales volumes – something I think he’d rather leave to the analyst community. I’m afraid I’d have to disagree with him about everyone in the industry having heard of femtocells though – many still haven’t come across them, even in the UK despite the heavy consumer advertising from Vodafone.

picoChip

Still very much dominating the market, with most designs using their chipset, Ruper Baines (VP Marketing) was naturally upbeat. His CEO, Nigel Toon, has forecast a million chipset sales by the summer. Rupert positioned the industry as being in phase 2 of 3, each about 2 years apart where:

  • Phase 1 is the “Custom Femtocell Developer” with 100K or so of market volume each
  • Phase 2 is the “Femtocell Integrator ODM*” with 1M or so
  • Phase 3 is the “Femtocell ODM” with 5 to 10M units.

[* ODM = Original Device Manufacturer]

[Ed comment: This could explain why both Ubiquisys and ip.access are now offering "Do It Yourself Femtocell design kits" to potential femtocell ODMs]

Pricing, always a sought after topic, was quoted as reducing from $45 in 2008 down to $20 by 2014. I clarified that the scope of this included the RF chipset, RAM, ROM etc. but excluded the crystal oscillator and GPS where required. It also excludes any IPR licences (telecom companies have lots of patents that they demand payment for!).

He also reported that 97% of traffic on the ATT network is now data (rather than voice), and the volume continues to grow.

Rupert agree with me that the vast bulk of chipset sales would be for the domestic market. Enterprise customers might pay more for their more demanding features - perhaps 10% of the market by number of chipsets, but greater in terms of overall sales value. The interest in rural femtocells – bringing telecoms to villages which have no connection to the outside world today – could be accelerated through the use of low cost satellite backhaul. He suggested some indicative figures of perhaps $1500 for a combined 3G femtocell with satellite backhaul modem that could cover a radius of up to 2km for 16 or more users.

Their announcements at the show included a 42Mbit/s 3G femtocell design and a remarkably compact (approx 6cm by 6cm) LTE prototype developed jointly with Continuous Computing and Cavium which was shown in various formats on several stands.

Percello

I only saw a short part of the presentation from this upcoming femtocell chipset specialist.  With a background from handset chipset design, their approach has been to achieve a much lower power consumption using lower internal frequencies and a few other tricks.

A few interesting points were:

  • By integrating the memory into the device (i.e. both the software program, configuration and dynamic data are completely internal to the chip), this makes it pretty much impossible to hack into the device. (Maybe some government security agencies could theoretically de-construct the chip, but this would require equipment and resources far beyond what hackers have available). This third generation design was announced at the show.
  • Their chipset was designed from the beginning to be able to operate in parallel, so 2 chips can together provide 32 or more concurrent calls/sessions. Their press release confirmed this.

Percello see the femtocell market as expanding into at least 3 different segments, each with their own different needs:

  • The residential market (where most of the volume will be) with 4 to 8 users
  • The enterprise market (needing special software features ) with 16-32 users
  • The rural market (needing extended range of 2km) with 32 to 48 users

With a chipset that can scale up through parallel architecture, it allows a cost effective solution at both the low end and high end.

Rakon

Andrew Miles was pleased to say that Rakon continue to dominate the femtocell market for oscillators. He confirmed their pricing for standard femtocell oscillators remains competitive at less than $5 (in large volumes) - somewhat less than the $8 reported in the article below and elsewhere. They've now extended their product range to include a GPS receiver which is so sensitive it even works indoors with a paper clip for an antenna.This probably follows on from a recent announcement of GPS receivers for smartphones last year.

[Ed note: GPS receivers are seen to be mandatory for North American femtocells, so they can determine where they are and use the appropriate licensed frequencies for that state. These need to be more sensitive than cheaper SatNav systems, capable of working indoors]

More about MWC to follow....

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