Can network sharing and femtocells co-exist?

Emeka Obiodu, Jeremy Green, Steven Hartley, and Julien Grivolas
Ovum
OvumAs operators adapt to increasing data demand, the number of network planning options available to them increases. However, multiple approaches can create new issues, with one approach potentially undermining another. For example, improvements to macro networks could cause femtocells to become redundant for indoor coverage.
 
It is uncommon to see discussions comparing femtocells and network sharing, but essentially their purpose is the same – to boost coverage and capacity, albeit with one focused specifically on indoor coverage and one oriented towards the macro layer. Nonetheless, this overlap calls for a deeper comparative analysis of all the network planning options that help operators improve their coverage and capacity. Without this, operators risk duplication and wasted investment in their networks, and the femtocell business case will come under increased pressure.
 
A lot of effort, both technical and PR, has been invested in making femtocells a commercial reality. For mobile operators, femtocells expand coverage inside the home and offer an opportunity to offload traffic onto the fixed network, helping the mobile operator to save on backhaul/transportation costs as well as theoretically save macro network capacity. However, the usefulness of femtocells ends if macro network coverage improves.
 
While improvements in macro network coverage can be a result of an operator investing in more network equipment, it can also be improved through network sharing. Given the inherent challenges of negotiating a network sharing deal, operators that share their networks generally expect improvement in their network coverage, although this doesn’t always include in-building coverage.
 
Will the femtocell business case be threatened if network sharing becomes common?
 
The network sharing agenda can evolve along several different paths, one of which is the “neutral host” concept. As operators work out how to pay for the deployment of next-generation mobile networks, the idea of a wholesaler (whether owned by operators or a third party) building the network and then renting capacity to operators – similar to what Arqiva has suggested in the UK or LightSquared is hoping for in the US – is no longer far-fetched.
 

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