Femtocells Growing Up: From Small (Home) to Medium (Enterprise) to Large (Urban) Capacity

January 14, 2009 at 3:00 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Femtocells will grow in capacity, serving an increasingly broad set of coverage applications.

All the focus for Femtocells is currently on Home use, with the future pretty bright there. Next on the Femtocell agenda: Higher-capacity Femtocells are desired to serve Enterprises, but these high-capacity Femtocells do not yet exist. So the evolution path is from the bottom (low-capacity) up:

1) Small capacity:       Home use
2) Medium capacity:  Enterprise use
3) High capacity:       Urban use

In addition to the basic Femtocell and its core value proposition, there are several enhancements that are being considered (see this post for a list of future Femtocell features). Additional, location-specific features are foreseen: the femtocell can offer new applications and tariff options. Additionally, Operators are considering how to integrate Femtocells into a Home network that supports multiple media, content, and delivery channels (lots of wild options there).

Femtocells are already working hard to deliver to the Enterprise, too. Although the initial Femtocell deployments are in the residence, the same benefits can be delivered to work locations. Huawei is already bringing such a product to market (in their uBro Enterprise AP that supports 16 simultaneous voice calls-4x the capacity of other Femtocells that are targeted for the Home). This trend is called a “Super Femtocell” and it blurs the lines of what is currently considered a Femtocell vs. a Picocell. Linquistically, Femtocells might be considered to be smaller than Picocells, but the difference isn’t in cell size–the real trend here is to bring the benefits of current Femtocells (low cost, self-configuring, standards-based) into locations that would have currently been served by Picocells (e.g., an enterprise floor, building lobby, mall), where a lot of traffic needs to be served.

­Much attention has been devoted to Femtocells’ potential to improve indoor cellular coverage. However, Picocells have existed for a decade. Picocells already provide larger coverage and capacity than femtocells, which should make them well suited to small and medium businesses. Yet global shipments of picocells will total only about 18,000 this year. Why? According to ABI Research senior analyst Aditya Kaul, “One major reason for picocells’ low penetration has been their high total cost of ownership. Picocells are mostly operated and maintained by mobile operators, and every installation and service call costs them money. Many operators underestimated these costs when they initially opted for picocells.”

Enter Femtocells. The market has focused on femtocells that are solving the problems that made picocells problematic. Femtocells promise a far lower Total Cost of Ownership TCO). Picocells may improve and deliver or Femtocells may grow up and displace existing Picocell products.  

“There is, says Kaul, a time-limited chance for picocells to secure a larger market. “There is a gap between the small capacity provided by femtocells and that required by SMEs. Picocells can fill that gap, but only if the next generation has drastically reduced ownership costs. ‘Super femtos,’ which are essentially femtocells with picocell capacities are also being prepared for this market, and home-grade femtos could see some use in the SMB market, once interference and handover issues are resolved. Therefore picocells have a limited window of opportunity.” reports Cellular-News.

Many observers (myself included) expect that the next generation of radio, LTE (or WiMAX, if that’s your flavor) can be deployed most efficiently by using Femtocells to deliver the new coverage … and using the existing 3G network as the backup/alternative for broad coverage. Operators deploying LTE will undoubtedly use this approach and will provide subscribers with LTE devices that fall back to 3G for maximum coverage (Note: this is exactly the approach taken when each, successive generation of radio networks are introduced, such as 3G handsets that fall back to 2G networks when 3G is unavailable). Comcast has proposed this for WiMAX deployment. Clearwire similarly is delivering mobile WiMAX but is depending on a fallback network coverage of 3G CDMA. Femtocells would be an excellent way to build up coverage and capacity where it is needed most: in the home and office, where customers currently generate the greatest amount of traffic and usage.


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