Femtocell trials and interest stretches across many parts of the world. The recent Femtocell conference in Russia highlighted strong interest and developments in the region. With widely available 3G service, rapidly advancing DSL broadband availability and public access Wi-Fi providing competition, femtocells provide solutions for btoh coverage and capacity issues. Here we take a quick look at some of the recent progress we've heard of.
Small cell deployment and drivers vary between different regions across the world. Here, we summarise some of the key differences and reasons behind them.
The USA has been the strongest adopter of residential small cells, with both Sprint and AT&T operating over a million units. A combination of geographically widespread suburbs, high ARPU and widely available wireline broadband internet (often from Cable TV providers) means there are many high value, broadband connected customers who suffer from poor indoor coverage at home or office.
Rapidly growing traffic mainly from smartphones has led to a strong rollout of public access Wi-Fi, and accelerated the deployment of LTE. Most operators are planning extensive metrocell investments - both Sprint and AT&T have announced multi-billion dollar investment programs. These are initially likely to be 3G based, but quickly move to LTE (or multimode) as these products mature. Sprint has set aside $1.6 billion to fund TD-LTE through Clearwire. There is a lot of interest in street backhaul to connect metrocells, with operators trialling a variety of products and technologies to solve that problem.
One of the fastest growing markets for mobile telephony, dominated by Telfonica (Spain) and America Moviles (Mexico). Residential femtocells are not available in the region, partly due to a high tax per cellsite which makes it commercially unviable. The rapidly growing data traffic demand is encouraging 3G metrocell deployment, with trials ongoing.
LTE is at a very early stage. Unlike the USA and Europe, the 700MHz spectrum band will not be available because analog TV systems are still in widespread use, which means more cells will be needed to provide coverage. We can expect the region to follow and adopt LTE in due course, but it is more likely that we will see greater 3G investment, especially in metrocells, in the next few years.
Read our report and small cell insights from the LTE LATAM conference in 2012.
Vodafone has led the market for residential small cells for some years, being the first to launch in 2009 and innovating with a new compact design (incorporated into a main electrical plug) in 2012. The service, marketed as Sure Signal, is widely available throughout its subsiduaries and is believed that some countries have several hundred thousand units installed.
Several other operators have also provided residential femtocells, but in many cases these are not marketed heavily and used mainly as a customer retention tool for when unhappy customers are about to leave due to poor coverage at home. SFR, in France, has one of the largest independent deployments with over 200,000 units.
Economic uncertainty is driving European operators to continue investing in 3G, rather than LTE. Operators are refarming their existing spectrum, such as deploying 3G at 900MHz which is more efficient and provides greater range/in-building penetration. It is likely that we will see initial heavy investment in 3G metrocells for the next 3-5 years, switching to LTE from 2015. In some countries, new LTE spectrum has not been auctioned or released yet, delaying the rollout.
Network sharing agreements are being more popular, with one operator (Orange Spain), saying they could not afford to deploy LTE nationwide alone and are actively seeking a partner.
Japan and Korea have led the technology deployment in the region, with both countries providing residential and metrocell small cells from an early stage. NTT DoCoMo and Softbank have both actively offered residential small cells, with Softbank giving these away for free in cases of poor coverage.
Korea has deployed 3G/Wi-Fi small cells for some time, replacing many repeaters in use. Their approach has been to use these for data only, with voice traffic handed over to the macrocells.
Both countries have deployed Wi-Fi extensively, but found that it has reached saturation limits and are switching to LTE. Softbank in Japan is rolling out a TD-LTE at 2.3GHz, while both main Korean operators are extensively investing in LTE. They have both launched their own design of indoor metrocell.
China, by contrast, has not moved so quickly in small cells. The country has been heavily driven to champion TDD mode, with China Mobile, the world's largest operator by subscribers, mandated to use 3G TD-SCDMA. It has installed tens of thousands of TD-SCDMA small cells, and we can expect much greater deployment of TD-LTE small cells in the future. In the medium term, China Mobile are putting their effort into Wi-Fi hotpots, with over a million public access Wi-Fi hotspots deployed and plans for 6 million nationwide. China Unicom and China Telecom have not taken advantage of their use of more global widespread (and therefore cheaper) technology to deploy small cells widely at this stage. But there is tremendous interest in the technology, as evidenced by the large turnout at the annual Chinese Small Cell Symposium. Read our review of the Chinese small cell market in 2012.
Australia and New Zealand have also taken up residential femtocells enthusiastically, with special offers to attract users. Vodafone New Zealand do not meter the broadband usage of their residential femtocells and leave them open for any subscriber to use. Optus Australia provide a package with reduced call rates. Telstra, the encumbent in Australia, have decided not to offer residential femtocells but are very keen to proceed with metrocells. Read our review of the Australian small cell market.
With generally poor internet wireline broadband, and very limited spectrum for each operator, residential femtocells have not been launched in India. We said some time ago that this might not be a major market for residential small cell, but more recently we have heard of some used for enterprise coverage and undoubtedly metrocells will have a part to play.
In more remote parts of the region, rural small cells have an important part to play. Off-grid, satellite linked rural small cells are bringing telecommunications to remote communities previously deprived of them, and at an affordable cost. The lower capital cost of a rural small cell, much cheaper satellite bandwidth combined with low ongoing operational costs (because these units are solar/wind powered and don't need many site visits for fuel or maintenance), all combine to make this an attractice proposition. One way of looking at this is comparing it to the village pump, providing digital connectivity rather than water.
With the recent flurry of activity in Japan which now has all three major networks offering femtocells commercially, I thought it might be time to checkup on China and see what’s been happening there. There's also an upcoming femtocell conference in Beijing next month which makes this even more topical.
January 2009 has seen a flurry of announcements about femtocell product launches in the US. Sprint has been offering its Airave femtocell since September 2008 and now Verizon Wireless has launched its Wireless Network Extender using the same underlying product. ATT Wireless, not to be outdone, has had a flurry of press activity around its so-called 3G microcell, which is still some months away from availability. We've looked at the overall picture, compared the various offerings and drawn some conclusions.