As he points out, I'm due to meet him for a few drinks later on this afternoon, so I'm sure we'll drill down a bit more. In part, I agree with him - WiFi is much better for *certain* applications and use cases.
However, I'll make a few comments upfront.
Firstly, WiFi can be a royal pain to set up, especially on smartphones - and *particularly* where it involves a third-party login. It's also difficult to monitor and control - and expensive to support if someone calls in for assistance. For this reason, many mobile carriers are wary of trusting WiFi as a suitable mechanism for either coverage extension or capacity offload.
As an example: while I've got my iPhone set up for my home WiFi's security, I hadn't provisioned it for BT Openzone - which (in theory) I should get free access to, courtesy of Vodafone - which would benefit from the offload and coverage extension when I'm in places like Starbucks. Result - 30 mins of frustration trying to use the 3G connection & browser to log into Vodafone's personal account and self-care page. Firstly the usual forgotten-password thing. Then hunting around the self-care system trying to find "switch on support for BT Openzone". Then Google the question, and be told "First, log into your Vodafone account". Aaargh. I've given up. Maybe I'll bother trying it from a PC at some point. Or seeing if it's driven by the Openzone splash page.
Or maybe Vodafone will just put femtos in all the UK branches of Starbucks, and I won't have to think about it.
Yes, I'm sure I can get some super WiFi log-on app thing for my iPhone which would automate it all, but frankly I can't be bothered to go looking for that either. I'll just use the 3G, even though I'm sitting in a basement on the edge of coverage.
So.... point #1 for femtocells is the pain / laziness / ignorance factor around setting up WiFi on devices.
Point #2 is the difficulty of extension of operators' own in-house voice services over WiFi. Yes, it's possible with UMA or some of the earlier VCC-style SIP approaches. However, those are quite expensive and complex to deploy, test, maintain and support - not to mention having similar issues and dependencies on the connection manager as discussed above. My views on UMA have been pretty negative since 2004, so it's fair to assume that's an argument I don't need to re-hash - although at least it now (finally) supports 3G.
Now clearly, many of Andy's clients (and indeed Disruptive Analysis') are quite happy when operators cannot extend their in-house voice services, as they are providing alternatives. I'm also a fan of Skype, Truphone, fring and so on... but I also recognise that many customers still prefer their existing mobile operator's own-brand voice service, or cannot be bothered to shop around. There are also issues about porting mobile-specific numbers (especially outside the US) to VoIP providers.
So - point #2 for femtocells is provision of ordinary circuit mobile voice indoors at good quality: which is desirable for many users, and most carriers. On the other hand, as Vodafone found out this week to its cost, this only works where the user has a 3G phone and decent-quality fixed broadband. (Most femtos don't support 2G GSM - although the CDMA variants support 1x).
Point #3 is around regulatory oversight and the perception of mobile operators that they are being held to a higher standard of content/access/application control than fixed operators - especially in markets with anonymous prepay. Access via a femto takes the data traffic back to the core network, where it can have whatever policies the operator desires applied to it, in the same way as macrocellular traffic. If the fixed broadband is the operator's own, then clearly this doesn't apply as it has a policy enforcement point anyway - or if the fixed provider has enabled a "managed offload" service of the type described in my recent Broadband Business Models report.
A related opportunity, point #4 - also discussed in that report - is for femto data to be *faster* than WiFi (or prioritised), if the mobile operator cuts a deal with the fixed/cable provider. Let's say you've got an 8MB ADSL service. But the line is capable of supporting 20MB. In theory, the mobile operator could arrange for your femto to deliver *more than 8MB*, essentially turbo-charging it vs. your own WiFi, if they are prepared to pick up part of the bill, or pay the fixed-line telco a "two-sided, slice and dice" fee. That's very much a "happy pipe" strategy of the type I've been mentioning recently.
Other femto rationales:
- Open-access femtos offloading 3G data traffic without your need to have any WiFi setup or switching
- Femtozone applications and services
- Macro (outdoor) femtos providing extra 3G capacity in hotspot areas
- Managed connectivity & security for home-workers from their enterprise. Yes, this is do-able via WiFi as well, but I can see this being linked to prioritisation and other corporate-grade teleworking services, such as operator-provided cloud computing resources.
Incidentally - I'll be at the London Femtocell conference on Thursday, and the Femto Forum awards dinner on Wednesday. I'm also based 3 mins round the corner from the Landmark Hotel, so if anyone wants an off-conference meeting (or a beer) let me know.