The use of femtocells will expend during 2009, but the landscape will continue to be confusing. That's fitting, since the entire telecommunications infrastructure is in the throes of great change. Though this transition won't end in 2009, the year ahead will go a long way to determining precisely how it all will work out -- and femtos seem to be front and center.
The bottom line is that there are two major food groups of telecom carriers: Wired and wireless. Within each, there are new and legacy players. On the wired side, the newbies are the wired Internet (and other networks based on the same protocol). The graybeard is, of course, the majestic legacy public switched telephone network, which has existed forever (or, at least, for about 100 years). On the wireless side sit the incumbent cellular networks and various IP-based approaches.
The tumult focuses on how all of these networks will fit together. Planners are wrestling with a couple of issues. One is to find the best way to unify their side of the aisle, for instance, how best to ingrate cellular and WiMax or wired VoIP and legacy wired networks. The other issue is how to integrate the wired and wireless sides. How can a widely distributed group of businesspeople -- some on cellular phones and some in their offices -- use unified communications to fully collaborate?
Femtocells will be front and center as these networks expand into each other. These widgets, which are most often described as mini-base stations that attach to the ends of cable or DSL lines in homes or SOHOs, are designed to extend coverage areas and thereby do neat things such as eliminate coverage problems that cellular networks often experience within structures and provide services to dead spots such as staircases.
As part of IT Business Edge's look at the year ahead, I asked dBrn Associates' Michael Finneran how femtos will fare. Said Finneran:
With both AT&T and Verizon planning femtocell tests for 2009, we can expect the market to pick up, but it is still unclear what the longer-term impact will be. To be clear, femtocells are consumer and small business devices (Sprint, the only current femtocell provider in the U.S., supports 3 simultaneous callers), so they will have little impact on large enterprise users. The appeal of femtocells is better indoor coverage and lower-cost calling when you are within range of your femtocell.
Femtos will be one of the meeting places of the wired and wireless network. For one thing, Finneran suggests that it will be an important tool for people who ditch their landlines altogether. Also, they will serve to enhance service packages from both wired and wireless providers. Says Finneran:
The consumer configuration they are aiming at will be cellular plus VoIP over your broadband Internet connection. Cable companies also offer cheap Internet telephony, so it's going to be a competitive market for packaged combinations. Do you add VoIP to your cell phone or to your CATV/Internet combo? In all cases, it's taking a bite out of the local telco's wired service.
The bottom line is that these are very useful widgets, and they will become far more common as prices go down, technical challenges (such as potential interference with macro base stations) are overcome and exhaustive testing processes are finished.