You may have read last week's femtocell trial announcement by Mobilkom of Austria . They are conducting a small scale trial of just 35 femtocells with a view to commercial rollout in the middle of 2009. What you may have missed in the small print near the bottom, is the size and capacity of the femtocells they'll be trialling. Some of these units are considerably more powerful than standard femtocells, with four times the capacity.
Huawei are supplying two models:
- A standard domestic model, capable of 4 simultaneous voice or data sessions
- An business model, capable of up to 16 simultaneous voice/data sessions.
Huawei's website makes no mention of this second, larger 16 channel model.
Mainstream Femtocell Industry concentrating on 4 channel boxes
Most of the femtocell industry has been concentrating on the domestic market, with chipsets, protocol stacks, packaging and system design oriented around a 4 channel femtocell. Industry figures have suggested that this small 4 channel design may also be used in small business/enterprise situations - Will Franks at Ubiquisys has told us that in areas of high capacity, cells can overlap so that calls are shared out between several femtocells across a wider area during peak traffic times.
Major Radio Access Network vendors already offer high capacity solutions
The large RAN vendors, such as Huawei and Alcatel-Lucent, also offer small inbuilding capacity solutions. Huawei specifically advertise their iDBS 3G inbuilding soution which provides enormous capacity from a central system, connected by fibre and then via ethernet to over 700 antenna. These systems scale up to handle thousands of simultaneous calls and data sessions. The cost and capacity of this type of solution is likely to be appropriate only for large enterprises or buildings. Its not unusual in requiring a large, high capacity central system and extensive wiring. Although I haven't seen Huawei's price list, I'd expect such a system to be priced in the range of $10,000to $100,000 (or more) including installation.
Femtocells are much cheaper for inbuilding enterprise applications
You could buy a lot of femtocells for that budget. Assuming today's price is still somewhere around the $200 mark, that's at least 50 femtocells. Installation should be minimal, depending mainly on whether the existing Ethernet CAT5 wiring can be reused (naturally some building owners wouldn't want to share this traffic on their network).
Enterprise femtocell = picocell?
This clouds the definition of femtocell versus picocell somewhat. One of the key differences is that picocells are installed by the radio department of a network operator. Femtocells are sold to, installed and to some extent maintained by the customer themselves. However, femtocells are much smarter than standard cellsites and are designed to be self-installing and optimising. This reduction in network management operating cost combines with lower capital equipment cost to make a compelling business case.
The Femtocell Industry Roadmap
Several femtocell companies have outlined their view of the femtocell industry roadmap. This view was outlined by Andy Tiller in a recent interview :
- Domestic market first - to get the volume which will reduce unit costs dramatically
- Enterprise market second - particularly the SOHO and SME smaller businesses
- Metro-Femto - enabling very high capacity mobile broadband data for operators in public areas, especialy 4G
Huawei ahead of the game?
Huawei appear to be ahead of the game by offering a larger femtocell product more suitable for this second stage, enterprise market. In offices, there can easily be congestion in specific areas or at specific times when a large percentage of staff are making or receiving calls. Its imperative that calls are not blocked (i.e. can't get through due to lack of capacity).
With all of their product developed inhouse, and the ability to re-engineer other parts of their 3G product line, Huawei can bring to market alternative formats and versions quite quickly.
Extending the femtocell benefits to SOHO and SME businesses
Large enterprises have been able justify substantial investment by the network operator to install specific additional in-building capacity.
Femtocells now create the possibility to offer this capacity and high quality voice/data mobile service for smaller businesses, hotels and conference areas.