Vodafone femtocells will pave the way for LTE roll out

3 Feb 2011

Vodafone’s launch of femtocells in Ireland are a forerunner to the eventual deployment of long term evolution 4G networks which will include mesh networks made up of fibre-connected cellular masts and public and private femtocells in homes, on streets and in businesses.

To the average consumer, the Vodafone Sure Signal unit launched today is first and foremost a method of boosting cell signals to ‘five-bar’ quality in homes and offices. No more hanging out the window trying to get a signal.

But look under the hood and the ability to connect to broadband networks shows that the femtocell technology is going to be a critical piece in the jigsaw for enabling the deployment of next-generation broadband networks.

Interestingly, the Sure Signal boxes have been manufactured by Alcatel-Lucent, a company that has been conducting valuable R&D work into femtocell technology from Dublin for some time now. Earlier this week, Alcatel-Lucent revealed it took part in the Southern German region of Ulm’s ‘Broadband Offensive’ to bring 50Mbps broadband to 12,000 rural households using a mix of wireless, VDSL2 and fibre-based GPON technologies.

Femtocells outnumber cell masts in the US

Femtocells – which are self-contained mini mobile networks for homes and offices – are tipped to become a vital component of next-generation mobile networks. AT&T became the first US operator to announce a 3G femtocell rollout nationwide and Softbank became the first operator to offer free femtocells and free DSL backhaul. In fact, femtocells already outnumber conventional cell masts in the US, where there are 350,000 femtocells and 256,000 macrocells.

As mobile data traffic continues to rocket, femtocells are set to become a vital component of next-generation mobile broadband deployments and will prove vital to LTE or 4G rollouts. Informa Telecoms & Media predicts there will be 114m mobile users worldwide accessing mobile networks via femtocells by 2014.

Vodafone Ireland’s consumer director Stefano Gastaut told Siliconrepublic.com that the Sure Signal product can give a home five-bar signal quality in a heartbeat. You just connect the device to your DSL router, turn it on and away you go.

He said the technology has been rolled out in Ireland after a 400-user trial. “The key benefits are being able to receive calls and data without signal problems.”

Gastaut confirmed that Vodafone is looking into deploying public femtocells around Ireland to boost signals, in particular data coverage. In the company’s financial results, it confirmed that one out of every two devices purchased in December was a smartphone. So boosting data and voice coverage is a key objective.

“Femtocells have been a huge success in the UK already and the key has been making them easy to purchase and easy to install.”

Gastaut said the Sure Signal boxes will be available in the Irish market from mid-February at a price point below €100. He said the company is already taking pre-orders. Each femtocell is capable of serving up to 10 concurrent mobile users.

His colleague Sheila Kavanagh, head of network engineering at Vodafone, said femtocells will be a vital component of the rollout of the next generation of mobile technology after HSPA – long term evolution. “As LTE develops, there will be a femtocell product.”

Underlining the potential demand for femtocells in the Irish market, Kavanagh said: “One-third of Irish people have issues with coverage, at home or in the office. The accessible market for this technology is really impressive. Sound quality and data connectivity are becoming fundamental issues in people’s lives.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years