Femtocell Opinion, comment and reviews

Three alternative paths to femtocell rollout

three-waysMuch of the initial market hype for femtocells has been for the residential market. Since then femtocell designs have grown in capacity to fit the enterprise market needs, and are also suitable for Metro-Femto deployment. Are residential femtocells still the best initial route for new network operators to take? We describe three alternative types of femtocell rollout and discuss which is the best initial path.

The three main types of femtocell rollout

We’ve categorised three types of femtocell rollout as:

  • Residential: For home and SOHO business, typically 4 calls per femtocell
  • Enterprise: For business users, anywhere between 4-32 calls per femtocell
  • Metro-Femto: Used in urban environments to solve spotty coverage and capacity bottlenecks, especially where planning permission or site availability restricts alternatives.

Let’s ignore the rural femtocell option for now because it’s relatively new and targeted at specific markets.

Femtocells were initially targeted at the residential market, designed with a maximum capacity of 4 concurrent calls and short range. While technical complex, the system architecture was designed to have minimum impact on the existing cellsites. The femtocell subsystem connected directly into the operator’s existing core network using the standard Iu interface.

In the last year, higher capacity femtocells have been developed which more closely match the requirements set for enterprise use. The so-called “Smart Grid” femtocell architecture further enhances the available capacity from a cluster of femtocells, spreading out the coverage and capacity on a dynamically optimized basis.

We’ve also seen the introduction of field-hardened femtocells designed for use in public areas, unsupervised and open to the elements.

All three categories are in use today

Vodafone has already deployed femtocells in all three categories, after the success of it’s UK SureSignal residential rollout, Vodafone Spain offers enterprise femtocells and Vodafone Qatar has been using Metro-Femto for some months.

Residential femtocell launches are not trivial

However, launching residential femtocells presents additional challenges over and above Enterprise or Metro-Femto:

  • Retail sales teams have to be enabled, trained up and supported to sell the product
  • Customer care and support teams must be trained
  • The operator’s website may need to be extended with self-service registration and configuration pages
  • Prepaid and postpaid billing systems may need updating to cater for any special pricing offers

Enterprise or Metro-Femto may be easier to launch

Enterprise femtocells can be introduced on a simpler basis than residential, being sold (or provided free to higher revenue business customers) through the smaller enterprise sales channel.

Metro-Femto deployments can be limited to the radio planning and operational team alone. They don’t involve any sales, marketing or customer care impact.

In both cases, existing budgets for alternative solutions (microcells, repeaters etc.) may simply be redirected to use femtocells instead.

Taking the first step

In order to gain confidence in femtocell operation in the shortest time, it may be worthwhile considering a three stage commercial deployment:

  1. Install and rollout as Metro-Femto point solutions. Standard femtocells are not designed for use in unsupervised/outdoor environments, so a choice may be needed between deployment indoors (for example in shopping malls or other buildings) or using a specially “field hardened” design.
  2. Rollout to enterprise customers. Optimus in Portugal have given tremendous insight into their approach. Effectively, the radio planning department which had previously bought and installed repeaters to solve poor coverage/capacity problems for enterprise users changed their approach and used femtocells instead. This allowed them to improve performance for a much larger group of business users, because the cost and time of each installation was comparatively lower. The budget used for repeater installation and team deploying them were refocused on femtocells, limiting the impact and effects on other departments.
  3. Expand to residential market. This is a larger organizational task which involves training, sales and marketing material, support and logistics across many different departments in the network operator. By having proven the technical solution by this stage, the task will be much more about selling and supporting this new type of product.

Monitoring market takeup

Many operators have tested and trialled femtocells quietly without publicity. Some may even have launched them for commercial service in a Metro-Femto basis, again without publicity. This allows the technical team to take their time, without pressure, to evaluate the real-life performance and operational behaviour of the system.

Only when femtocells are commercially available to the public can observers be certain about their launch. This does make it more difficult to track the stage at which each network operator is today.

Large volumes are dependent on residential launches

Component vendors will no doubt be most interested in the high product volumes achieved with full residential rollout. Perhaps premium prices can be charged for higher capacity/tighter specification femtocells, but this won’t compensate them for the smaller number of units.

So should operators be reconsidering their go-to-market plans?

With many observers now advocating that femtocells will form an important element in the network operators’ armoury to provide coverage and capacity, it seems essential to make some progress with commercial launches as quickly as possible.

With more than 10 operators worldwide now offering these on a commercial basis for residential customers and more expected to launch soon, the scope of a residential femtocell launch is now understood. Conservative operators may want to progress by rolling out the femtocell technology in the three stages outlined above. Others may want to gain competitive advantage by driving to full residential femtocell deployment as quickly as possible.

As with any new technology rollout, time will tell which route is most popular.


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