The recent announcement from ip.access of a residential 3G femtocell may have surprised some in the industry. As part of one of the world’s largest femtocell deployments at AT&T, surely they already had this capability? How does this new product position alongside their existing 2G and Cisco solutions? We dug a bit deeper to find out more.
The latest announcement
ip.access launched the nano3G C-Class femtocell last month, a freestanding access point targeted at consumers. Capable of 8 simultaneous active users (each with voice and data) and data rates of up to 14Mbit/s, it matches the specs of other leading femtocells on the market today. It supports the use of a white-list to restrict access to the customer, family and friends in closed access mode.
This product complements the nano3G E-Class and S-Class 3G femtocells designed for large enterprises/public spaces and small offices/shops/public spaces announced previously.
It is also compliant with the Iu-h interface, so could be used with other vendors' femtocell solutions, although it appears to be intended mainly for use with their own femtocell gateway and network management system.
Oyster 3G platform and Cisco Solution
The nano3G is built on ip.access Oyster 3G technology, which is the underlying platform used by Cisco for their end-to-end femtocell solution. Cisco have embedded this inside the 3G MicroCell product sold by AT&T and combined it with their own network components to create the complete system. Although AT&T is the most visible and public customer, their system is also being trialled elsewhere.
I’m sure ip.access would continue to support Cisco as it sells the solution elsewhere, but up to now I haven’t been aware of any other public announcement of systems deployed or go-lives.
ip.access provide support for those using their Oyster 3G platform, including software updates and refinements. The AT&T deployment has given them enormous insight into the practical issues (and technical surprises) found in mass femtocell rollouts. Diagnostic and troubleshooting tools, now packaged up and marketed as OysterCatcher, have allowed them to see real-world traces of many corner cases and effects found across different network scenarios.
Their own end-to-end 3G femtocell solution
The company has also developed its own end-to-end technology for 3G femtocells, including the femtocell gateway and management system. This is independent of the Cisco solution and includes a couple of components bought in from elsewhere – for example, the recent announcement that Acme-Packet had been selected for the IP Security Gateway. The server hardware platforms used are also industry standard ACTA fault tolerant components.
This expands their position of being able to supply an end-to-end 3G femtocell network in their own right to include residential femtocells - they already have some live networks with enterprise and public space 3G femtocells.
Earlier ip.access solutions were proprietary – at that time no standards existed for 2G GSM over IP, and all the early 3G femtocells also used their own techniques. Standard interfaces were used to connect into the mobile network core, using the A and Gb interfaces.
In March 2010, ip.access developed and demonstrated interoperability with the 3GPP Iu-h interface, which means their femtocells can be used with other vendors gateways and/or their own system can support 3rd party femtocells. This should help open up further opportunities in the future both for them and low-cost femtocell vendors too.
Complements their existing 2G solution
ip.access have been in the business of small cellular basestations for a long time, since 2002 - even before the term femtocell was even invented. Their first products were 2G GSM based picocells (of very similar characteristics to today's 3G femtocells) and these continue to provide a revenue stream. Many cruise liners, merchant ships, remote labs and business enterprises already have their GSM system installed. It has been particularly relevant for special or unusual cases, such as where a self-contained/self-standing GSM network is required.
A cruise liner is a good example of this, with on-ship calls being handled entirely onboard and others connected via satellite through roaming gateway. ip.access systems have also been installed onboard long haul aircraft.
ip.access versus the competition
Combined 2G and 3G systems: ip.access have just announced nanoConverge - a combined 2G and 3G gateway. This allows their existing 2G GSM customers to make an easy upgrade to add 3G service by adding a few cards into the server and connecting the new range of 3G femtocells. There are few small cell vendors offering both technologies today, and I can't think of any that have this integrated into a single system.
Technical Competence: With many years of experience of running both GSM and 3G femtocells in a wide variety of networks and use cases, including one of the largest at AT&T, the company can claim to have a great deal of expertise learned the hard way through practical deployments.
Sales Channel: Today, the majority of competitor femtocell systems are sold through a few large system integrators or RAN (Radio Access Network) vendors – Nokia-Siemens, Alcatel-Lucent, NEC, Huawei, Cisco and the like. As a smaller independent company, ip.access typically sells directly or through (often small local) system integrators to many network operators. It has built up a large numbers of customers, but few as yet on a very large scale.
Product Scope: The femtocell industry has many companies which target a specific niche – femtocells themselves, gateway, security gateways and specific components. ip.access is unique in being able to supply a complete 2G and 3G combined femtocell system.
The comprehensive range of ip.access' portfolio, complete proven 2G and/or 3G femtocells with gateway and management systems, puts them in a strong technical position. With the high forecast demand for femtocells in the future, this pioneering company is surely well placed to expand its footprint. This will depend partly on how is can build its sales channel to work more extensively through partners worldwide, and partly on whether it can find ways to match the low market price points for high volume residential systems.