Femtocell Opinion, comment and reviews

The Femtocell MegaHub

Femtocell Mega Hub Will femtocells be consumed into a central Mega-Hub for each household? We are already seeing products which combine broadband modems, routers, print servers and femtocells in one box - is more consolidation likely?

fWe've discussed  Product Packaging, where femtocells can be provided in several different physical formats. In the home, these are focussed around either the TV and around the computer/study. Whilst many homes do have more than one TV, and these days its not so unusual for families to have several computers, there are general central points for these facilities.

Therefore, it is likely that there are two battlegrounds for consolidating functionality in the home “hub”:

  • Around the TV
  • Around the Computer 

TV

As a focal point, particularly in smaller homes, this can be a primary source of entertainment. Broadcast channels may come via terrestrial, which is transitioning from analogue to digital service, or cable or satellite. It will often have a video recording capability – more often the VCR has been updated to a digital PVR which enables timeshifted viewing of programs. Such systems are now becoming enhanced to offer IPTV by downloading programs on demand, or in the background overnight. It may also have a games console (Xbox, PS3, Wii etc) and often a DVD player.

Computer

Where one computer per household used to be thought more than adequate, lower costs, ease of use and growing demand for laptops has increased this substantially. In many cases the home desktop has been replaced by a laptop, although for more serious users the extra power and capacity retains it in place. There may be one or two printers, and it is not unusual to share a network.

Broadband communication service providers have met this need by offering “Home Hubs” – preconfigured broadband modems which include a WiFi access point that can be shared by several people within the same household. These hubs often include a print server, to share a common printer, VoIP ports which support standard landline (POTS) telephones, firewall, router and more.

Over the last ten years we have seen a transformation with WiFi being incorporated into the broadband modems and used commonplace in the mass market. The performance and reach of WiFi within the home environment is generally fairly good, although in dense accommodation there can be interference with corresponding poor transmission rates and/or coverage.

TV and Computer needs differ

These two areas are distinct, have different needs and requirements, and are evolving at a different pace. TV evolution is being driven by demand for higher definition, hence HDTV, Blu-Ray disks and large flatscreen panel displays. Perhaps even more significant is the change to on-demand viewing, with rapid growth of downloadable TV programs and takeup of PVRs. For example, the BBC iPlayer is said to consume around 10% of all internet traffic in the UK, having been launched only last year. The new Kangaroo platform which will include content from other free-to-air channels is expected to be even more successful. Communication requirements are high bandwidth, although not necessarily low latency/variability and potentially very large storage – a Terrabyte is not unusual to hold copies of many films etc.

Computer hub requirements are located near the printers, in the study (or corner of the dining room) and perhaps also where convenient for the phone line. Arguably there is less need for such large storage, but it needs to be secure, ideally backed up to an offsite datacenter (e.g. BT Digital Vault or Amazon S3 etc). Here latency, short response time are particularly important.

Several vendors, including Microsoft, are promoting Home Servers, which aim to satisfy all of these needs. They combine the computer hub requirements (including the ability to restore a PC from “bare metal” in the case of faults) with massive storage for videos that can then be watched from any of several TV’s in the home.

So where would it make sense to incorporate the femtocell functionality into? From a radio performance, the best location is perhaps closest to where the mobile phones are going to be used. If the femtocell needs to have GPS receiver inside for location and/or timing/synchronisation purposes, then being close to a window would help.

Probably what would make most sense is to incorporate it into the communications equipment, so that voice traffic can be prioritised and end-user quality ensured.

No Mega-Hub

I therefore don’t see a single “Mega-Hub” server being provided for consumers, incorporating all of the needs for TV and computers – at least not in the medium term. Instead, I would expect the broadband modems to incorporate this technology as we have seen announced by several vendors (Netgear, Thomson). This will help reduce the overall cost and device management aspects.

It also makes sense because this unit will be bundled from the broadband supplier, who may also be the mobile network provider, but not necessarily providing IPTV. The cost of providing a full server will additional features and huge storage is unnecessary.

My view is that operators will choose a small number of vendors for their femtocell requirements (say 2-4), and in the medium term, will prefer combined broadband modem/WiFi/femtocell systems because they are lower cost to manage.

This is why we are seeing strong partnerships and development programs between the leading femtocell vendors and DSL modem vendors today.

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