Lightening the load

John C. Tanner
08 Sep 2010

Femtos: approach with caution

Femtocells are arguably at the top of the offload hype cycle, particularly now that commercial deployments have been announced. Informa says some 13 operators have commercially launched femtocells (compared with only six commercial launches in November), including Vodafone Spain, AT&T, Softbank Mobile and KDDI. China Unicom is trialing femtocells in Beijing. SK Telecom plans to roll out femtos in November. 

Still, femtos have been slow to catch on, partly because of uncertain business models and the subsequent marketing challenges, and partly because they're essentially a new network element that cellcos have to be able to integrate and manage. 

The latter is crucial, says Steven Hartley, principal analyst of Ovum's mobile practice, because the customer experience has to be as painless and plug-and-play as possible, and it takes a lot of work at the backend to enable that. 

"If you want to do anything sophisticated with femtocells besides simply improving indoor voice coverage, you really have to look at how it's going to connect to your network management system, network control system, billing system, mediation system, customer support system, and emergency call system," Hartley says. "How do you manage that on the network, how does it interact with the macro network? Those are important questions when you start thinking about how to evolve this to something more sophisticated like offload."

The distinction between using femtos for coverage vs offload is important, he adds, because offload requires more sophisticated functionality, as well as better interference management. "Deploying femtos for coverage is a niche market and you don't have interference issues to manage. It's more difficult with offload. Vendors talk about self-optimizing femtos that can power up and power down, but if you've got an apartment block and you're serving everyone with a femtos and they all power down, then coverage becomes the area the size of a small conference table. Or it powers up and either interferes with neighbors or with the macro network. So they have to work out how to manage that."

Much of this is why operators are approaching femtos with caution, says Hartley, and why most deployments to date have been primarily aimed at improved coverage rather than offload. 

That said, Jai Rajaraman, Asia Pacific senior director for the GSM Association - which has been working with the Femto Forum since 2008 to develop femto solutions for 3G and 4G - says integration isn't a major issue. 


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