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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Femto industry needs to get real about WiFi

I've had two conversations this week with senior, technically- and commercially-savvy representatives of the cellular industry, both from very well-known organisations at the core of the mobile world.

Both have expressed severe reservations about the femtocell model, at both technical and commercial levels. They mentioned various issues I've discussed before, including the need to support multiple operators within a single household, and the prevalence of WiFi in almost all devices creating meaningful volumes of cellular data traffic.

Yet I still see various protagonists in the femtocell industry suggesting that femtos could potentially replace WiFi as an access mechanism in homes or businesses. (I'm going to leave public hotspots for a moment, as their owners have typically made a multi-year mess of pricing and ease-of-use, which is another bugbear of mine).

In my view, the positioning of femtos as WiFi-replacements diminishes the credibility of the companies involved - not just in the eyes of those who actually understand WiFi, but also in the eyes of those skeptics in the hardcore macrocellular community who believe that "outside-in always wins".

Yes, there are marginal cases where the precise configuration of a connection manager client on a PC or iPhone might divert a few MB of traffic one way or the other. But the lack of awareness of how ethernet (yes, remember WiFi = WLAN = Wireless Ethernet) works and gets deployed and managed is sometimes scary. I've sat through hour-long panel debates on supposed opportunities for enterprise femtos without a single mention of terms like "firewall", "power over ethernet" or a recognition that companies like to manage *their* LAN without bits of it being managed by a third party that typically *outsources its own servers*.

The same arguments apply in the home. Ethernet and WiFi are now pervasive, and I see no reason that they're likely to disappear.

My view is that the femto industry needs to tackle this issue head on, and learn how to play *nicely* with WiFi, rather than pretend it's either irrelevant or a competitor. Otherwise it is going to find it hard to convince even the skeptics in the mobile industry, let alone the IT world.


Anonymous said...

Outside of some niche applications Femto is a dead duck. Technically they are a mess to manage and commercially far too expensive. Enough already.

If Nokia et al could just get their act together with easy WiFi support on their handsets we could say goodbye to femto for good.

Simon Cast said...

Femto cells strike me as better combined with a wireless router. I'm thinking such as the ones provided by BT or O2.

Add in some smarts then the company can improve mobile coverage and potentially off load some traffic to more general internet. I'm thinking of a Fon model where the broadband payer gets "free" access while others can roam onto the femto-cell and pay with their usual minutes.

I do remember that popping up a few years ago not sure why it fell out of favour.

Anonymous said...

Are you suggesting that broadband in the home (or office) is largely served by Wi-Fi and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future? If so, where does that leave broadband data using 3G and LTE?

IMHO femtocells at this time deliver coverage for voice, text and lightweight data usage for emailing. Period.

Dean Bubley said...

Anonymous - some home broadband is currently satisfied by 3G, assuming decent coverage & sufficient capacity. It's a mix of people who don't/can't get fixed broadband (eg they want prepay, or move house regularly), plus various other reasons.

A lot will depend on the setup of the connection manager software on the device. There are some applications which may be best delivered via specific bearers, macro/femto 3G or WiFi.

What is less clear to me is if a 3G/LTE operator wants to offload traffic in the home from a laptop of smartphone, what will determine the WiFi vs. femto path, if both are available. It is that type of decision point that my post is intended to address. Someone needs to give some serious though to the algorithm which chooses one/the other/both. At present I don't see much analytical thought being directed at that, just prejudice & assumption.

Offload via femto probably reduces the risk of WiFi congestion, and might be more "tuneable" for distance / coverage pattern, for example. It may also be a better bearer for applications like voice and SMS.

On the other hand, connection to a Hifi or TV may be better routed via WiFi - and certainly that's the case for "on-LAN" traffic in the enterprise: there's no point tromboning the traffic via the operator core, to get from a laptop to a server in the basement of the same building.

And this may all change again with femtocell "local IP access" in the future. My point is, this is complex and there's not enough work being done yet.


Davide said...

You wrote:
"I've sat through hour-long panel debates on supposed opportunities for enterprise femtos without a single mention of terms like "firewall", "power over ethernet" or a recognition that companies like to manage *their* LAN without bits of it being managed by a third party that typically *outsources its own servers*."

Could you please elaborate further? I am not sure I understood what is your worries about "firewalls" and "power over ethernet".

Zia said...

I believe the femto never targeted the in to out coverage. They were always meant for indoor dedicated coverage only.

The femto probably had the wrong timing (recession) more than anything else. I fail to understand why wouldn’t a mobile operator want to tap onto the revenues from data and give it away to ISPs?

Dean Bubley said...


In an enterprise context, there is a major issue if a femto is behind a firewall,as it would need to create an IPsec tunnel to the gateway, creating a security risk.

PoE is useful if the femto has to be installed somewhere with an ethernet cable but no convenient power outlet, eg ceiling void. In general it's easier to have one physical connection rather than two.

Zia - I'm confused by your post. You seem to suggest that femtocells are late, which is not correct. I also don't understand your point about ISPs.

Aidan Dillon said...

Couldn't agree with you more, I get the same feedback from operators that femto isn't a technology that can be easily rolled out.

As mobile devices are being used for more data intensive applications, e.g. YouTube, Slingbox, etc. it makes sense for operators to let, or even push, their customers onto WiFi. Especially ones that have a flat-rate data tariff.

Is it a coincidence that AT&T, as the iPhone pioneer, are investing in WiFi hotspots. See http://www.informationweek.com/news/mobility/wifiwimax/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=219401448 ?

In my opinion, WiFi networks, or for that matter WiMax and any other broadband network, should be seen by mobile operators as potential data roaming partners. The technology is available to do this, it just needs a change in their commercial thinking.

Dean Bubley said...

Aidan - does that mean that if the operator's device roams onto *my* WiFi, on *my* broadband, I can charge them a wholesale rate of 50cents/MB or whatever it is that Viviane Reding permits?

I might even be tempted to rev-share it with my DSL provider, if they can sort out the billing & interconnect fees.....

Aidan Dillon said...

Vivene Reding's price is only a cap - you could go lower to attract greater volumes to 'BubleySpot'. You can also have domestic roamers not just international.

As for interconnect and charging, it can be based on the existing, tried and tested, mobile-to-mobile methods. You connect 'BubleySpot' to a WiFi aggregator that has the appropriate technology (sorry, some shameless self-promotion here) that makes WiFi networks look like a mobile network from an interconnect (MAP/SS7) and charging (TAP) point of view. They have a mobile roaming agreement in place with the mobile operator, behind which they aggregate 1000's of hotspots - including yours - and pass on an agreed slice of the revenues.

With EAP-SIM/AKA they can even attach automatically without needing any login procedure.

Andy said...

Dean, you say that various protagonists in the femtocell industry suggest femtos could potentially replace WiFi, but (as a protagonist in the femto industry myself) I don't really hear that argument being made. Most of my peers accept that WiFi and femtocells will live side-by-side in the home and office.

However, I would argue that, where a femtocell and a WiFi connection are both available, users will probably leave their device (dual mode or otherwise) set to use the access network which is available outside as well as inside (ie 3G) as long as there are no cost implications. (Of course, I'm assuming that mobile operators will make data usage free on femtocells.)