Femtocells to bring convergence

26 February 2008

Femtocells have the potential to improve call quality, but is there more work to be done?

If they are to have a major impact in the wireless market, it would seem so. Femtocells are designed as small access points that route nearby wireless voice traffic through existing broadband connections. In this way, femtocells can provide VoIP for wireless handsets that can improve call quality and save money by enabling users to make calls without using-up minutes of their mobile phone contract.

In addition to lowering the cost of producing femtocells, manufacturers need to prioritise VoIP, standardise Femtocell architecture and mitigate interference issues with other femtocells.

Fixed mobile convergence (FMC) and femtocell technologies are primarily focused on providing adequate mobile phone service in environmental circumstances that are less than optimal for the existing infrastructure.

FMC is essentially a dual-mode phone that uses wi-fi based networks for interior phone connectivity as well as the normal mobile phone technology in order to provide widespread connectivity regardless of the location.

Femtocell technology offers the same results, but does not require a phone with two different wireless technologies. Femtocell technology uses 3G base stations connected to the Internet that are located at interior locations associated with poor mobile phone reception. The 3G phone then transitions between femtocells and a mobile infrastructure, depending on which one provides optimal signal conditions.

It seems that femtocells already have an advantage over FMCs because most businesses and homes have 3G mobile phones and an IP broadband connection. Therefore, little effort has to be expended to ensure a Femtocell is active. It can simply be plugged in.

Having previously declared that FMC was their preferred choice, British Telecom (BT) have recently dropped their Fusion FMC programme, claiming that customers did not like the wi-fi infrastructure and that FMC phones have a short battery life. FMC involved using a wi-fi or Bluetooth radio in a mobile phone to transfer calls between the mobile network and a broadband-based network in the home or office. This was designed to appeal to subscribers because it allowed for cheaper VoIP tariffs on the broadband network

Meanwhile, carriers that did offer the service (Orange in France) had early success, but were soon matched by mobile carriers without FMC (such as Bouygues Telecom) that lowered their tariffs on calls made from the home.

Netgear recently launched a device at the Mobile World Congress show earlier this month. The femtocell voice gateway (DVG834GH) is a multi-purpose device advertising an integrated ADSL2+ modem, router, 10/100-wired LAN switch, 802.11g wireless access point, VoIP, SPI double firewall, and 3G femtocell.

Also at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona earlier this month, Sonus Networks launched its first wireless product, aimed at helping service providers integrate femtocells into their IP networks. The mobileEdge Wireless Access Node acts as a Femtocell gateway, enabling operators to connect approximately 260,000 subscribers to a single node. As large-scale deployments of femtocells, (essentially miniature, wireless base stations for home use), have yet to surface, the immediate customer base for Sonus' product could be seen to be small.

Paul Jacobs, CEO of wireless telecommunications research and development company Qualcomm, has warned that femtocells are going to cause interference problems. “They may jam other access points or create jams or gaps in macro coverage. It’s a challenge for the technology world to make this work properly,” he stated.

Another challenge for femtocell deployment is the fact that no one has yet developed a single architecture that the industry can use as its standard. There have been a number of models with designs based on SIP, UMA and other mobile architectures. Indeed, the lack of a standard being developed could result in market fragmentation.


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