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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

New Report: The Case For Femtocell-Aware Handsets

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I was working on a report assessing whether or not femtocells might, in fact, require the use of revised mobile phones.

The full research report is now available from Disruptive Analysis, titled "Femtocell-aware Mobile Handsets: Will cellphones need to be optimised to support future massmarket femtocell business models?"

The report is an in-depth analysis of what should be changed in handsets, to make them perform better with femtos. Please contact: information AT@ disruptive-analysis.com for more details. (Journalist enquiries are also welcome). A table of contents is here.

Before I get a hitman from the Femto Forum knocking on my door, I should be clear upfront that for early, basic deployments of femtos, handset upgrades shouldn't be needed (as long as the user's existing 'legacy' phones are 3G-capable).

My view is that the femtocell industry is currently focusing on the short term – getting initial trials in place, developing standards, and securing commitments for early commercial deployment. These are all critical to validate the market, raise the profile of the femto concept, and stimulate finance and investment. One of the central marketing propositions is that femtocells can work with normal 3G handsets.

But while focus is good – and the industry does not want unnecessary distractions – there is a risk of medium-term disappointment if certain future problems are not addressed early enough, even if this muddies the waters of the short-term marketing message. Handset development cycles are so long that works needs to start now. Already, femto proponents are talking up massmarket business models that go beyond simple indoor coverage and macro-network offload. They are talking about 10’s of millions of subscribers, and new “in-home” services for users, that exploit fast and cheap local mobile connectivity.

(Disruptive Analysis' forecasts in the report are less bullish than some - an installed base of around 30m femtos at end-2013)

As the market gets beyond "Femto 1.0" business models, handset innovations become more important. In part, this relates to complexities in managing the radio environment and mobility between femtocell and macrocell networks. Various optimisations are desirable, especially when dense deployments of femtos occurs. These drive changes in areas such as the way the phone “selects” cells on which to register. There may also need to be ways to offer provisioning and “guest access” on femtocells. Some of these changes to handsets are being enshrined in 3GPP's Release 8 specifications for what it calls "Home NodeB's".

But the medium-term hopes of the industry are also that people will use their cellphones differently when in range of femtos. There will be different applications and different behavioural patterns when people are at home – perhaps content backups, podcasts or even advertiser-sponsored TV programming. The mobile phone may need to linked to TV, PC, HiFi or other items of domestic technology.

This report argues that if the phone will be used differently, it needs to be designed differently as well. Standard phones can work with femtocells, but they are not optimised. Certain applications may only work when the phone is within femto range – but they need to know when that is. Yes, some services can be notified by the core network that the user is “at home”, but that approach doesn’t scale to a wide base of operators, application developers and handset/OS vendors. The phone needs to be “aware” of the femtocell, ideally both in the radio and the application platform. Elements like the IP networking "connection manager" in the phone are key. Other aspects like memory allocation and power management may need to be revisited too - even perhaps the phsyical design of the device.

Changing such elements is not quick. The handset industry is much more complex and slow-moving than many in the wider wireless business understand. The mobile industry habitually trips up on these issues. Phones - both hardware and software - are extremely difficult, time-consuming and expensive to get right. It often takes 2-3 years for changes in handset architecture to reach commercially-sold handsets, and another 2-3 years to reach a broad range of devices and reasonable penetration within the user base. And there are huge challenges in getting the user-facing applications and useability right - the network interfaces are much easier to standardise and develop than the user interface.

In recent years, other mobile network innovations such as UMA and IMS have faced delay & lack of market acceptance, in part because of a lack of early focus on the practicalities of getting handsets ready. The fact that the network protocols are in place does not mean the whole proposition works in the hands of the user. I remember talking to an IMS advocate a couple of years ago - and pointing out that many of his suggested use cases for IMS implied a multitasking OS on the phone - something that even today is far from ubiquitous.

Disruptive Analysis believes that the femtocell industry needs to be much more open-minded about the need for modifying and optimising handsets – and to be alert to the huge time and effort it will take to achieve. It is necessary to look at everything from physical design, to network protocols, to testing, to the phone OS, to femto-specific applications. Although many femto advocates fear distractions could delay immediate market acceptance, early consideration of these “2nd order” problems is necessary for longer-term success.

The report predicts a demand for at least 50m femto-optimised phones by 2013. And that number could be much higher still (100m+) if there is widespread use of "shared" femtocells, or if some of the more optimistic observers' baseline femto shipment forecasts hold true.

The "Femtocell-Aware Mobile Handsets" report is about 85 pages in length, and is priced starting from £1500 / US$3000 / €1950 for a 1-5 user licence. For sales and additional details, please contact: information AT disruptive-analysis.com

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I'm not sure if you've been following the airave product, which is a femtocell from sprint in the US.

But its now available nationwide, and some of the early users have been complaining that the airave blocks out cell phones that aren't on the restricted list of the airave.

Meaning, if the airave is set to only allow certain cdma phones on the airave, all other cell phones are blocked from making calls, even if there is a usable cell tower signal.

There's been some discussion on the sprintusers message board.