Femtocells, small, low-cost cellular base stations aimed at improving indoor coverage, are seizing significant attention from mobile operators globally. In the last few months alone, the market has exploded with reports of pending trials, new RFPs and proof-of-concept partnerships.
Japan's Softbank, for example, began in June a six-month demonstration experiment on 3G femtcoell technology with seven vendors. Rival NTT DoCoMo plans to install femtocell base stations (jointly developed by DoCoMo and a third-party vendor) for its residential and business consumers to improve W-CDMA reception in indoor environments such as shops in basements and in high-rise structures.
In Europe Vodafone reportedly issued a large RFP for a combined Wi-Fi and HSPDA femtocell solution, and is close to selecting participants. The mobile giant is running trials with Ubiquisys and ip.access and plans to move to a major trial soon.
At the same time, femtocell technology vendors are accelerating product development. Companies like ip.acess and Ubiquisys have working products in lab trials, with commercial trials scheduled for 2008.
Major telecom equipment manufacturers including Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson, Motorola and Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN) have also developed femto access solution in a bid to meet operator demand. NSN, for instance, has announced its vendor-specific 3G femto home access product and clinched a partnership with Thomson to provide a bundled solution.
Mike Murphy, NSN's head of technology for Asia Pacific, says the company is looking at conducting field trials with operators in the first half of 2008, with commercial deployment expected in the third quarter of 2008. Motorola, one of several vendors participating in the demonstration of femtocells with Softbank, is also engaged with a number of other Asian operators on femto cell-related activities. Even internet search giant Google is scouting out opportunities in the femtocell market by investing in Ubiquisys, a key manufacturer of femtocell base stations.
Improved 3G experience
In principle, femtocells can be applied to several wireless technologies, including GSM, W-CDMA/HSPA, cdma2000 1x EV-DO, LTE, WiMAX and WiBro. However, many analysts believe the 3G consumer market presents the greatest opportunity for femtocells.
'We believe that femtocells could not have arrived at a better time for 3G operators, which are struggling with poor indoor coverage and declining voice ARPU, and also find it difficult to grow non-voice APRU and new services,' says Analysys Associate Dr. Alastair Brydon.
Andy Tiller, marketing VP at ip.acces, says the fact that 3G operates at higher frequencies makes it much more difficult (compared to 2G) for radio signals to penetrate buildings. That has frustrated users when 3G services, especially high-speed data services like mobile TV, are used in homes.
Compared to existing microcellular technology, femtocells provide advantages such as physically smaller units, greater network efficiency and lower costs, he says. Instead of expanding their existing macrocell networks, mobile operators can add femtocell base stations, with DSL (or other broadband) backhaul to their mobile core-network in homes to achieve low-cost, high-quality indoor coverage.
Substantial cost savings provides another strong incentive for 3G operators to support the technology. For one, widespread deployment of 3G femtocells can help offload traffic from macrocells into fixed broadband networks, preventing operators from having to make substantial investment in more outdoor base stations to improve in-building coverage.