Femtocells: The Talk of Spain

Carl Weinschenk

There is not too much new information in this Economist story on femtocells, other than to signal that it was the big news at The Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The piece does a good job of summing up what femtocells are, why telecommunications companies are so excited about them, and where they may be going. The message is simple: Femtocells are becoming a central element of the conversation about how the industry will deal with the increasingly growing capacity and quality demands that are being put upon it.


Femtocells are small base stations that connect to a cable or digital subscriber line (DSL) modem. The secret to their expected success is that they help both service providers and consumers: Service providers can off-load traffic from cellular to less expensive bandwidth, while subscribers get improved interior coverage and the seamless transition of calls from cellular to wireless service.


The Economist points out that today's femtocells are retrofitted appendages to existing networks. In the future, however, they will be built into the system from the ground up and therefore have a more central role, for instance, in the marketing of movies and other big loads of data.


The move to femtocells could be fast. The potency of the potential attraction to users is made clear in this survey, which was sponsored by 2Wire. More than 43 percent of 600 cell phone users queried said that they would switch carriers to get better coverage -- precisely the thing femtocells provide.


The commentary in the story -- including strong quotes from 2Wire's corporate communications director -- suggest that femtocells are a more efficient way to achieve this coverage than the another major approach, voice over Wi-Fi (VoWi-Fi). The crux of the matter is that VoWi-Fi demands a new handheld device, while femtocells only require an additional modem-like piece of hardware. Most subscribers, the thinking goes, would opt to keep their handheld.


Anyone who still doubts that there will be huge amounts of wireless data to manage and traffic should read this Macworld piece in which an executive for UK carrier O2 said that the iPhone is driving "unheard of" levels of mobile Internet traffic. The service provider said that it will launch a major femtocell trial in partnership with NEC and Ubiquisys. The game plan is to roll out the service to 500 users this summer and launch commercially early next year. The COO of Telef´┐Żnica O2 Europe said that the data flow will become even more intense as innovative pricing plans are put into effect, and that the femtocell/DSL combination could be a central tool in handling the onslaught.


There seems to be action in addition to the buzz in Barcelona. This week, TeliaSonera said that it will run 3G femtocell trials in Denmark and Lithuania. The tests, this piece says, will include different environments and are aimed at commercial deployments in the future. The story notes that the Femto Forum earlier this year called for further integration of femtocells into the core of mobile networks. The Denmark trial will be supplied by Alcatel-Lucent and the Lithuania trial by Motorola, the story adds.


In another potentially significant move, Freescale Semiconductor and Sequans Communications used the Spanish show to release a reference design -- essentially, a set of plans that vendors can license -- that the companies say will make WiMax femtocell access points (APs) smaller, cheaper and easier to develop. The reference design, the companies say, is 165 mm by 135 mm and can lead to rapid creation of APs capable of support 50 simultaneous users.

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