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Friday, April 28, 2006

More femtocell noise.... but just how practical are they?

There's a growing clamour around cellular "femtocells" (basically like picocells but even smaller). Designed for installation at the end of a broadband line, these are cellular base stations that are being pitched at the $100-$300 level depending who you speak to.

There have been at least two public statements about them by operators this week. SpringMobil's financial backer mentioned them on Wednesday at the MVNO conference I talked about yesterday. And this morning, Pipex has finally broken cover as the mysterious Ofcom auction winner Cyberpress Ltd (not a surprise as I'd found that the Pipex CEO was a director) and announced to that "There is also potential for this spectrum to be used in homegateways to provide mobile phone access through broadband connectivity."

Also, on Tuesday I bumped into some folk from one of the leading startups targeting the space, called Ubiquisys. The other companies I know are looking are ip.access (the leading picocell vendor), 3Way Networks, Motorola and probably most of the other cellular infrastructure suppliers. At least two silicon vendors are targeting chipsets for femtocells (PicoChip and TI)

So. We're going to get cheap home cellular base stations, either sold for peanuts (or subsidised) on their own, or integrated into ADSL/cable/WiFi gateways and routers. The first working versions should be around in the next 12 months, so surely we're all set for mass rollout in H2 2007, right?

I'm not convinced. Let's think about the practicalities of getting femtocells to market - and ponder why it took so long to get alternatives like BT's Fusion and WiFi handsets to work.

- The good news is that these devices can in theory use standard 2g or 3G handsets, so none of the complexities of WiFi dual-mode phones apply, such as battery life, IP stack etc.
- The OK news is that for non-differentiated services, no other changes to the phone will be necessary. Operators should be able to offer cheaper in-building voice and SMS, and maybe some sort of generic location-based services using existing handset capabilities. Whoopee.
- The bad news is that for really innovative services, these phones will need to be different. They will also be a sort "dual-mode" - Outdoor, and Indoor. Applications on the phone, not just in the network will have to be "aware" of the difference, and behave in appropriate fashion. When indoors, they will need to be "good consumer electronics citizens", working nicely with the PC, HiFi, TV, games console, fixed phone, camera etc. They'll need to use USB or Bluetooth locally (especially as UWB-Bluetooth should start shipping in phones in 2008). So, mobile software and OS vendors, and handset manufacturers: start thinking about this stuff now. Just what does a femtocellphone have to do? "2 or 3 year horizon" did I hear you say?

- Will femtocells plug into existing broadband modems/routers? Or will they be integrated as larger gateway products and act as replacements? Two equally unpalatable choices here: work around a horrible mess of legacy installations & expect millions of support calls on configuration "Where do I plug it in? Do you have a USB or ethernet connection? Er... wossat then?". Or convince people to throw away existing kit, which may involve persuading them to bin their current broadband provider, their TV service, their employer's home connection....
- ... and if you're a mobile-only operator & you get people to install the gateway/femtocell, what do you do when someone calls your call centre to say that their PC's VPN client doesn't work with the new firewall settings, and can you tell them how to fix it, please?
- I'm starting to think that homes need 2+ broadband connections so they can use multiple home gateways / set-stop boxes
- do they need to be plugged into the mains for power? What happens if someone switches it off?

RF planning
- where will people put these in their homes? as an operator, you have no control - on the floor, on a shelf, in the cellar, in the loft, in a cupboard, by a window. Maybe they'll move them around. Should make updating your frequency planning map entertaining....
- so, your femtocell service is a success. You've got 1000 per square mile in major urban areas. Possibly 200 in the same apartment block. And so do your competitors. Better call those RF planning guys again, if they're not having a nervous breakdown already.
- What happens if I log onto my neighbour's femtocell?

Billing and back-office
- "Location-based services! Targettable to an individual home!". Er, which services will they be? I've yet to see any application providers pronounce themselves as having a focus on this. So factor in time for these guys to get funding, a roadmap, write some code, test it, market it, sell it.....
- What impact does this have on existing billing systems? Can they cope? How long will it take to test different pricing schemes via market research? What about the fault reporting and QoS monitoring function? Inventory software? Provisioning?
- Any security issues? What happens if I unplug your picocell and plug in a different one? What happens if someone steals one?

And lastly, how exactly are you going to handle the inevitable media hysteria? "Aaaargh, a cell tower in your kids' bedroom!!!! Daily Mail* exclusive" (*Illustrative, for all you lawyers out there)


David Mould said...


I have been following your blog since you wrote about the Ofcom results. I actually think there is some "diamond in the rough" here. If you get a chance have a look at my vision of what could happen.


David Mould

Andy said...

Hi Dean

You raise a good point about femtocell-aware applications. For example, I can see apps like ShoZu reloading podcasts automatically, and uploading user-generated content to the web, when the phone connects to the femtocell at home. Flat-rate data plans also make this viable on the macro network, of course, but operators may be keen to configure apps to transfer non-time-critical data on the femto layer by default, because it's a lot cheaper to operate than the macro network.

Hopefully, the operators will pass on these cost savings in the form of "femtozone tariffs", making mobile services cheaper to use at home.

The idea of location based services targeted at the home does sound a bit bizarre ("where's my nearest... bathroom??"). Maybe a home presence service could be interesting - i.e. see who's at home (or at least, who has left their phone at home) via a mobile web page. This could be combined with a home intercom / PTT system (e.g. for announcing to the entire household that dinner is ready :-).

Another potential femtocell application could be playing back personalised mobile TV recorded on a PVR connected to the home LAN.

Regarding interference, the idea is that femtocells will be able to listen to the surrounding radio environment and configure themselves automatically to minimise interference with the macro network and other nearby femtocells. Now that the first working femtocells are available, we'll begin to discover how well this works in the real world.

Andy Tiller
ip.access (makers of the Oyster 3G femtocell)

JohnPL said...


I'm looking for a detailed block diagram of a FemtoCell board design. Does anyone have something like that I can use? Signing an NDA is no problem.