Femtocells, small base stations that hang from a consumer premise device - usually a DSL modem - are a rare technology that looked a decade ago to be a certain winner because they excel on two related, but separate fronts: "Femtos" help subscribers by improving coverage in the premises and help service providers by offloading traffic from expensive cellular networks to the free Internet.
It hasn't quite worked out that way. While femtocells are getting some traction, the overall progress has been slower than many - but not all - observers predicted. This mixed bag seemed to be the theme of the Femtocell World Summit in London in mid-June.
In this piece, Fierce Wireless Europe takes a look at why the predictions have not been borne out. It's a long piece, but the nub of it is neatly contained in one early paragraph:
First, according to industry analysts and participants, femtocells still cost too much and, in the meantime, operators have invested hugely in augmenting their macro networks. Also, vendors have proposed alternative solutions to femtocells.
Femtocells are not a bust and, indeed, gradually are rolling out. Light Reading Mobile, in its report from the summit, highlighted some of these projects. It added bits of information garnered from some of the companies. The piece focused on Vodafone Group (nine femtocell markets), Telecom Italia (about to launch in four Italian cities), Umobile (running a pilot in Malaysia), NTT DoCoMo (launching femtos soon) and Vodafone (planning femto usage). Less-precise information was available about Russian service provider RegaFon.
A report from the forum by Telecoms is bullish. It starts by citing Informa Telecoms and Media. The firm, according to the report, says there now are more 3G femtocells globally than 3G base stations, by a count of 2.3 million to 1.6 million. Others cited growth as well:
Simon Saunders, chairman of the Femto Forum, said at a round-table ahead of the summit that the femtocell market has experienced significant recent growth of 60 per cent in the last quarter, taking the total number of commercial services operating globally up to 31. Forty-three operators have now publicly committed to the technology, up from 34 at the end of the last quarter.
However, a report on the conference by The Register captured a more balanced picture of limited growth. It started by suggesting that progress had indeed been made over the past year. It then took the enthusiasm down a notch:
However, actual wide scale deployments remained limited; the talk of new applications and services enabled by femtos had not really borne commercial fruit, and the idea of stretching femto concepts into other areas such as public access metrozones was just that, an idea.
This balance will remain into the future. If not for anything else, it would be hard to meet the early expectations. But femtos are proving themselves to be a valuable - and not rarely used - tool.