Femtocell technology: cheaper, faster 3G so then why the hard cell?

14 Aug 2008

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Enhancing mobile comms in the home – are the Irish networks ready for it?

Apple’s iPhone may have grabbed this year’s mobile industry hype all for itself but another technology with a much broader reach is on its way.

A femtocell is a mobile base station small enough to be located in the home. The low-power unit can support around four mobile devices simultaneously and boosts the mobile signal for better call quality.

It combines the cellular network with a home broadband connection, allowing operators to offer cheap or free mobile calls.

“It dramatically improves the coverage and capacity of your connection. If you’re getting bad service or dropped calls, then femtocells solve that completely,” says Rupert Baines, marketing chair of the Femto Forum trade group.

“With data services, if you’re looking at YouTube on an iPhone or checking email, it’s much faster – it’s like getting broadband on your phone,” he says.

Femtocells don’t require anyone to upgrade their mobiles. “There are two billion handsets worldwide, any of which will just work with this technology. That’s a huge reason why we’re optimistic about it,” says Baines.

The first wave of the technology is aimed mainly at residential users, but newer products in development will support greater numbers of users and integrate with PABX phone systems, making them suitable for businesses.

Next week, US carrier Sprint will launch one of the first live femtocell services. Consumers will pay an additional $4.99 premium on their monthly bills to make free, unlimited calls when in range of the base station, which costs $99.99.

It’s still early days for femtocells – ABI Research estimates the amount of units shipped this year will be around 100,000.

The company says the technology will really only begin to take off in the latter part of next year, with units shipping in serious volume by 2010.

Different business models will emerge as the technology matures. Steven Hartley, a senior analyst with Ovum, suggests Sprint’s price plan may deter some users.

There may also be issues with the ‘handover’ from the mobile network to when a person enters their home and is in range of the femtocell, adds Hartley.

For these and other reasons, many operators are still testing the technology. More than 20 femtocell trials are underway around the world, so it is possible there may be some developments in the Irish market by next year.

According to ComReg, mobile operators here don’t have to apply for a separate licence to operate femtocells, but under the terms of their existing agreements, they are obliged to notify the regulator where each base station is located.

To date, ComReg has had no requests from any operator in Ireland. A spokesperson for Vodafone Ireland says the group is actively looking at femtocell technology and is carrying out technical feasibility studies with several suppliers and commercial evaluation in other markets. 

Majella Fitzpatrick, a spokesperson for O2, says the company is monitoring developments at its parent, the Telefonica group, which is running trials in the UK, Spain and the Czech Republic.

She confirms there will be a trial here before any launch could happen. “The capabilities of the fixed-line network are different and the customer requirements are different, but having said that, we would learn a huge amount from the other trials so we’re not starting from scratch either,” she says.

As O2 doesn’t own a fixed-line broadband network, this may be a limiting factor in delivering femtocell services in Ireland. “It’s not so straightforward,” Fitzpatrick says.

Few people may know about femtocells now, but a survey for Motorola found some 40pc of Europeans were interested when told of the benefits. The question is, how soon will Irish consumers be able to see the technology for themselves?

By Gordon Smith

Pictured: Typical femtocell deployment scenario (Graphic courtesy of the Femto Forum)