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Monday, January 23, 2006

Indoor cellular services

One of the lowest-profile, but most interesting, backwaters of the wireless business is that of on-campus / on-site dedicated "private cellular". Various regulators, companies and service providers have given the green light to corporate-level local cellular networks, which run in specific dedicated slices of spectrum, often at lower power levels than the main "macro" networks in the same country. A typical application is for a company to build "its own MVNO" - ie using ordinary low-cost cellphones as the main communication device for employees, switching "on-net" calls locally and connecting in with their existing PBX or IP Telephony system for cheap/free intra-company tariffs. Often, the private cellular network will have dedicated in-building coverage, using pico-cells or distributed antenna systems. Potentially, very individualised "local functionality" can be added, enabling customised services to be offered on a site-specific basis.

The best-known European examples of this approach are Swiss operator In&Phone and Swedish operator Spring . Also, UK regulator Ofcom is currently formulating plans for auctioning "spare" slices ofGSM spectrum in 2006, that may also enable indoor applications from new operators. Disruptive Analysis is aware of various companies' interest in this spectrum.

It's worth noting that this approach is different from the type of "Mobile PBX" solution espoused by companies like BroadSoft and Speakanet , which use the macro network's coverage and frequencies, rather than dedicated in-door spectrum and a separately-licenced service provider. These services act as a value-added "intelligent network" overlay application, and group together a given set of numbers, rather than acting in the site-specific (and improved indoor coverage) mode of the private cellular option.

One of the notional disadvantages of this type of solution has been the need for the "indoor" operator to enable "roaming" from the in-building network onto the macro network. (The operator is typically a specialist provider acting as outsourcer, rather than the company itself - most corporates or universities don't have the skills to build & manage a cellular network). Given their frequent opposition to regulators allowing new players to cherry-pick profitable niches like corporate campuses in the first place, there is understandable reluctance from established macro-cellular operators to conclude such agreements. It is therefore notable that In&Phone has just signed such a deal, which holds promise for similar models in other countries.

Overall, this adds a new twist to the corporate FMC / indoor-coverage / PBX-integrated wireless marketplace, which looks to be shaping up into a 4-way fight:

- conventional macro-cellular networks with mobile PBX "closed user groups", or mobile VPNs, for lower on-net tariffs
- conventional macro-cellular networks with an "Office Zone" tariffing system, reducing prices within a given cell (essentially a corporate version of O2 Germany's Genion-type system)
- dedicated in-building cellular networks (ideally with an external roaming partner, or provided by a macro operator in the first place)
- dual-mode VoWLAN / cellular, offering the benefits (free calls, productivity etc) of a "full VoIP" solution indoors, but at the cost of dual-mode handsets and additional infrastructure and integration.

From my perspective, there's no obvious outright winner yet. It'll depend on country/regulations, business demographics (company size / industry / building infrastructure etc), device costs, PBX interoperability and the relative difficulties of installing new in-building WLAN vs cellular coverage solutions. It'll be interesting to see what new changes in this landscape are announced at 3GSM in February.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Dean - I think the most immediate and cost effective use of in-house private networks will be for movie theatre viewers to use their cell phones to communicate with a new generation of interactive digital movies through the new digital projection systems that are starting to go in now from folks like Texas Instruments.