MWC: Femtocells and Wi-Fi are growing up

Steven Hartley/Ovum
21 Feb 2011

The recent Mobile World Congress (MWC) saw a lot of announcements surrounding both femtocells and Wi-Fi. This activity highlights the growing maturity of these technologies in the mobile industry, and a growing technological convergence that the MWC has been slow to reflect. Combined with other developments in network technology, it is also a sign that network planning is becoming increasingly complex. This has serious ramifications for operators that are building investment cases for network evolution as too much complexity could lead to suboptimal deployments that fail to maximize the potential efficiencies of new technologies.

The MWC saw a large number of femtocell deployment announcements. Most notable was the announcement from Telefonica Spain, but MegaFon in Russia and Network Norway also announced commercial launches, while Zain announced a trial in Saudi Arabia.

More interesting was the growing range of form factors in which femtocells are appearing. At MWC, we saw femtocell technology that had been scaled up to become enterprise solutions, or metropolitan femtocells that offer outdoor coverage.

This raises the question of where does a femtocell end and a picocell begin? We also saw some interesting concepts using USB connectivity. PicoChip’s third-generation silicon can be deployed in a dongle-sized device. Ubiquisys displayed its SFR USB access points, which fit into the existing Neuf box. Ubiquisys also showed Softbank’s integrated Wi-Fi, femtocell, and broadband router, which demonstrated how the technology is becoming increasingly integrated.

One of the drivers for this change is the marked improvement in femtocell industrial design due to increased involvement from original design manufacturers. For example, Sercomm are taking Ubiquisys’ technology and building innovative designs for SFR, while PicoChip showed Vodafone’s forthcoming SureSignal box, and the design is a marked improvement over the first iteration.

There is also a growing array of business models. The most notable is Softbank, which is distributing femtocells that are enabled with free Wi-Fi. SK Telecom has a data-only femtocell that is designed to be used purely to support its offload strategy. USB form factors enable integrated operators such as SFR to upgrade existing deployed broadband routers more cheaply. In the future, this could enable fixed operators to charge mobile operators for the deployment of operator-specific plug-ins.

The MWC also saw some interesting developments in the Wi-Fi space. The most notable was Ruckus Wireless’ ZoneFlex Mobile Internet Smart Wi-Fi System. As a sign of the increasing importance of Wi-Fi to mobile operators, ZoneFlex integrates the Wi-Fi network with the cellular network, and provides seamless authentication as users move from one technology to the other. NSN’s smart Wi-Fi solution shows how even radio access network vendors are getting in on the act. WeFi also launched a carrier-grade Wi-Fi solution.

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