Femtocells Enter a Promising Year

Carl Weinschenk

Femtocells, small base stations that link to a cable or DSL modem, always have been intriguing devices that offer a win-win by taking pressure off the cellular network and improving signal for cell phone subscribers in the premise.

Now, femtocells are a win-win-win: ABI Research suggests that what it calls "femtozone services"-as the name implies, value-added services based on the femtocells-are going to make these platforms hot in 2011. At the same time, at least one company is pushing these widgets-which now primary are aimed at consumers-into the small business area.

The ABI release offers a few examples of what could be offered in the femtozone approach: presence-based mobile phone alerts, home security, remote control of lights and home content synching. The firm says that there will be 2.3 million femtozone subscribers next year, and that they will create $100 million in revenue. Those numbers will escalate rapidly, the firm says. In 2015, 45 percent of femtocell users will use femtozone services.

That's in the future. The Wall Street Journal reports on what it says are two pieces of good news for today's femtocell sector. The first is the results of a survey conducted by the Femto Forum. The organization quizzed 6,100 people in China, Germany, Japan, Spain, the UK and the U.S. It found that 60 percent are interested in femtos, 42 percent could be dissuaded from moving to another carrier because of access to the technology with the current provider and 18 percent are likely to switch to a carrier because femtos are offered. Thirty-six percent of users in homes with multiple carriers would consider consolidating on a single provider that offers femtos.

The WSJ correctly points out that the identity of the sponsors should lead to the results being taken with a grain of salt. However, it would be a mistake to dismiss them completely. It also should be pointed out that the respondents probably were reacting to somebody reading them a list of femtocell attributes. If so, the respondents were considering the concept, not the reality, and probably more likely to answer in positive manner.

The other piece of news is that Picochip has reduced the functionality to a size able to fit on a dongle. The story suggests that this is small enough to add the functionality to consumer premises devices-modems, set-top boxes and gateways-via a USB key.

Picochip isn't the only vendor making news. ip.access Ltd. is pushing femtos toward small businesses. Light Reading reports that the company has introduced a femtocell with advanced management capabilities. The device supports eight users and features real-time alarms, the ability to accommodate any device that comes within range and sophisticated handoff with the cellular network. The bottom line is that the device pushes residential femtocells more fully into the realm of small shops and offices.

Even if the Femto Forum's results were a bit optimistic, it seems likely that femtocells are set for a good year. Perhaps the greatest of these is the ability to offer services on top of the core capability of linking disparate systems and networks. Doing this-and at a point close to the end user, where the service provider presumably can be more responsive and offer services closely tailored to what the subscriber wants-sets femtocells up nicely.

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