I recently announced the 7th commercial network operator launch worldwide, with the news that China Unicom had launched an offer called “3G Inn” available to subscribers in its Northern Provinces. Since then, NTT DoCoMo has formally announced its MyArea femtocell launch for 18th November. But is this being too optimistic and including some soft launches or market trials? With these and many trials in progress around the world, what criteria should define a market launch?
The stages of bringing a product to market
With new products, especially using radically new technology, operators are understandably risk-averse and want to test out the implications and capabilities before committing to mass rollout. A typical lifecycle would involve one or more of the following stages:
- Lab tests in a controlled environment, checking the functionality, peak performance and edge cases
- Friendly user trials, such as with their own staff, where the system can be tested out in real-life situations. These would initially concentrate on the functionality, and not look at billing or customer care aspects.
- Market testing or soft launch, where a limited number of products are sold (for real money) in a restricted geographical area. This can be used to test and experiment with price structure and price point, the back office ordering/support/provisioning/billing systems.
- Full market launch. Even where there has been a period of market testing, some operators still restrict the rollout to specific areas (or markets as they are called in the US). It takes time to train up all the sales/support/customer care people, and there with large networks there may be multiple/duplicate back office systems and processes to be updated.
One simple test could be whether or not a customer can go into a shop or online webstore and buy the product. Some so-called “soft launches” or market trials are promoted as full launches when this isn’t really the case. Even ATT Wireless 3G Microcell is only available in “restricted markets” and so perhaps shouldn’t really count as a full commercial launch. To my knowledge, the other 5 commercially live networks (Sprint, Verizon Wireless, Vodafone, Starhub and NTT DoCoMo) have no geographic restrictions on availability other than it must be in an area where they own licensed spectrum.
Enterprise Femtocells will be more difficult to track
Where femtocells are used for commercial premises, these use a different sales channel. These larger systems will compete with picocells and DAS (Distributed Antenna Systems) to enable high capacity and excellent coverage inside large office buildings. As such, these are one of the tools of the radio planning/operations department and may not need the backoffice integration with other parts of the business that domestic femtocells will require.
It’s less likely that operators will make public announcements about the progress they make with their enterprise femtocell deployments, and they won’t offer these for sale directly on their websites.
Each launch is different
Each of the networks who have launched their femtocell service have gone about it in different ways. Whether this is done quickly or slowly, well in advance or just in time, we can expect to see many more announcements in different forms in the period ahead.