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Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Femto conference thoughts

I'n at the Avren Femtocell conference near Heathrow today - I'm speaking on a panel later about femtos vs. home-cells vs. dual-mode. It's a very well-attended event, with a decent representation of operators as well as a broad range of vendors.

I'll try & update this post through the event, although I'm not sure if I'll be here tomorrow & Thursday.

One particularly interesting development has been the instigation of the Femto Forum and I've already heard a lot of discussion around standards.

But... I'm becoming increasingly skeptical of the near-term opportunity, especially in mature broadband markets. Some general areas of concern:

  • rapidly-growing installed base of non-femto home gateways & settop boxes. In the real world, most early femtos will need to be "daisy-chained" off the back via an ethernet port, adding to installation and configuration headaches
  • lots of unrealistic expectations about "single operator households" supposedly where one provider supposedly offers a whole family a bundle of mobile phones, broadband & maybe IPTV and so forth. Maybe in utopia, or in a country which is a mobile/broadband greenfield, but again in the real world, people have multiple phones, households have members with different requirements, longterm contracts are always out of phase, and so on. How do you manage a house with 2+ femtos?
  • No mention thus far about how to optimise a femto offering for prepay subscribers
  • By the time femtos are massmarket, 900MHz UMTS will have solved many of the macro coverage problems
  • Ideally, handsets will be femto-optimised to enable them to use the indoor coverage "well", ie for data-related applications like content backup, TV watching etc
  • Unclear what the working life of a femto is expected to be - and how that fits with the blistering pace of development of the rest of the IP/IT/WiFi/broadband part of the system
  • Assumption that the femto voice-stream will get priority on the broadband connection. Who decides QoS prioritisation vs. home access to enterprise VPNs, streamed TV, home security or various other 'important' uses of the pipe?
  • For mobile-only operators without their own broadband (or close ISP partnerships), the femto model assumes Net Neutrality, which has the potential to raise accusations of hypocrisy. ISPs will investigate ways to charge 'parasitic' mobile operators who want to use 'their pipes' for free.

None of these are unfixable problems. I still like the underlying concept of femtos. But these problems will take time & keep the new Forum occupied. I haven't done my own forecasts yet, but my gut feel tells me that one of my peer's much-ballyhooed 5-year forecast of 36m units is over-optimistic.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

I too have my own doubts about Femto. It will be good to hear if these are non issues and how they are resolved.

1. Frequency planning and interference
2. Not sure how they femto vendors ensure that the mobile talks to the femto and not the macro bts.

Mo said...

What I want to know is: when can I buy and operate my own femto in my own home, and configure my phone to roam using it? (is this possible, actually? I don't know if roaming agreements involve some crypto exchange. I suppose if it could just fake the MCC/MNC of my preferred provider—which is different to my wife's, incidentally).

I don't honestly care if Voda/Orange/O2/T-Mobile/Three can install a Femto in my home: that has zero benefit to me. Using my mobile phone to talk to my own VoIP gateway, on the other hand? Tell me where to sign up!

8000RPM said...

One thing I can't put my finger on is what is in it for the end-user.

Is it better coverage? Is it cheaper calls? Do end-users care?

The momentum behind consumer femtos seems to be more carrier-push vs. end-user pull........ I'd love for someone to convince me otherwise, because I want to believe!

Andy said...

What's in it for the consumer depends very much on how the operator decides to market femtocells. It could be free calls at home, one monthly flat fee for broadband (whether used on home PC or mobile), cheap mobile music downloads at home, have €25 to take a femtocell home and plug it in... The main point is that the operator business case is good enough that they have flexibility to make a compelling consumer proposition. Whether they will or not is another matter.

Anonymous said...

900 mhz will only creat even larger catchments with worse service contention than now. Great for rural broadband but user density will kill this in short order in urban environments. I can't even hold a cell call these days anywhere without getting a dropped call let alone 3G data services. Wifi is close, irts fast and hooked to a good BB backhaul zips. The rest is low level email at best most of the time.

Dean Bubley said...

Anonymous #1 - there are various attempts to rectify the problems, especially through the use of modifications in 3GPP Release 8 such as whitelists & closed subscriber groups. I talk about them in my new report on Femto-Aware Mobile Handsets

Mo - you can't with current business models. It uses licenced spectrum, and therefore unless you do a deal with the licence owner to "make yourself your own MVNO", your idea won't fly. You could try lobbying Ofcom to change the rules for low-power 3G licencing.... or else convince handset manufacturers to develop UMTS in unlicenced 2.4GHz or 5GHz bands. (see my latest blog post for musings on this!)

8000rpm - for some users it will be better coverage. There may well be cheaper calls as a sweetener. For others, it's all about faster/cheaper data indoors, especially if they're using HSPA devices which don't have WiFi too. And ultimately it may about cool new "homezone" apps - maybe using your phone as a "second screen" when you're away from the TV for a few minutes.

Andy - thanks!

Anonymous #2 - no, 900MHz won't be particularly useful in urban areas, although it may help indoor penetration for some users. I don't know where you are or what cellular provider you're using, but in central London calls very rarely drop. WiFi is only useful for PCs and the <10% of handsets that have it. In many cases, HSPA now gets to respectable speeds, if you're in decent radio coverage.