Finding out about a femtocell future

15 May 2008

Femtocells have the potential to improve call quality, and according to ABI Research, the European femtocell market has been valued at US$4.2billion. PAUL WOLFE looks at the growth of femtocells

Femtocells are low-power radio systems that plug into a residential broadband connection and enable mobile subscribers to use their handsets to access data and voice services. It is a 3G-access point that has been developed as a consumer device for use in buildings and provides a low-cost dedicated 3G coverage and capacity indoors. By routing wireless voice traffic through existing broadband connections, femtocells can provide VoIP for wireless handsets that can improve call quality and allow users to make calls without using-up minutes of their mobile phone contract.

In essence, FMC (fixed mobile convergence) and femtocell technologies are focused on providing adequate mobile phone service in environmental circumstances that are less than optimal for the existing infrastructure. FMC is essentially a dualmode 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. However, 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 placed 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 would seem 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. Residential femtocells are connected via the customer’s broadband DSL (digital subscriber line) or cable to the mobile network where a controller then aggregates the traffic. Using broadband as the backhaul, the femtocell is able to provide voice and data services in the same way as a regular base station, but with the benefits of a simple and cheap installation. With existing fixed-mobile convergence services, users require a dual-mode wi-fi handset to access low cost services inside buildings. The demand for 3G mobile voice and data services is accelerating, but with up to 80 per cent of these services being used indoors, there remains a problem with 3G penetrating buildings.

“Unlike 2G, 3G is deployed further down the frequency band and hence the wavelength of the signal reduces, providing smaller coverage. Therefore, carriers need to deploy more base stations to meet coverage and capacity requirements, resulting in higher capital and operational expenditure,” notes Frost & Sullivan programme manager Luke Thomas. “Accordingly, carriers are evaluating femtocells as a solution to reduce the cost factor and enhance indoor quality of service for 3G technology,” added Thomas.

A recent announcement by NEC Europe (a subsidiary of NEC Corporation) revealed that it is working with mobile operator Telefonica O2 Europe to deliver the UK’s first live femtocell trial. O2 has begun an initial period of live testing and if it proves to be successful, the trial will be rolled out in greater numbers across the UK in summer 2008, with a view to a commercial launch by early 2009.

NEC is one of the first providers to offer a complete solution that includes the femtocell access point for direct subscriber use, together with the femtocell gateway and the management and provisioning systems. As a board member of the Femto Forum, NEC is involved in femtocell standardisation activities. Indeed, a challenge for future femtocell deployment is that a single architecture has not yet been developed that the industry can use as its standard, although there have been a number of models with designs based on SIP, UMA and other mobile architectures. Indeed, the lack of a standard could result in market fragmentation. However, the Femto Forum is a body that sets the agenda for worldwide femtocell deployment, and as an independent, not-for-profit membership organisation with founding members including Airvana, ipAccess, Netgear, picoChip, RadioFrame, Tatara and Ubiquisys, it promotes the uptake of femtocell technologies through open standards, market education and ecosystem development.

Frost & Sullivan estimates that there will be 21,392 million femtocell subscribers with 10,696 million femtocells deployed across Western Europe in 2010. Ultimately, they predict that this could reach 39,403 million subscribers with 15,761 million femtocells deployments by 2011. Apparently, an underlying factor for the success of femtocells lies in its commercial cost. Therefore, immense pressure is placed on vendors to reduce the bill of materials for femtocells, as carriers are not in a position to subsidise if the overall costs are not reduced.

Continuous Computing and picoChip, have announced that the two companies are partnering to bring to market an integrated high-speed packet access femtocell software reference design. Through collaboration, the joint femtocell solution will pre-integrate Continuous Computing’s trillium femtocell protocol software with picoChip’s PC8208 software and PC202 picoArray single-chip processor. “As the femtocell market takes off, our collaboration with Continuous Computing comes at the perfect time to solve the protocol stack complexity challenges confronting the industry,” said Guillaume d’Eyssautier, president and CEO at picoChip. “The femtocell concept has finally gained its own momentum and with the backing of the Femto Forum, we can all steer it on a clear path to success,” added d’Eyssautier.

However, 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.

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