The case for femtocells is clear. By enabling the relocation of communications from pricey licensed cellular spectrum to cheaper wireless VoIP, "femtos" reduce costs and in some cases improve audio quality. Operators also win because increasingly crowded cellular spectrum is freed in favor of Wi-Fi spectrum, which is cheaper for them as well as for end users.
With all of this going for it, it's a bit surprising that the category hasn't taken off. The situation was adroitly summed up by Richard Webb, Infonetic's directing analyst for WiMax, microwave and mobile devices, in the press release announcing a report by the firm:
"2009 was heralded by many as 'the year of the femtocell.' In short, it wasn't."
The report does say that progress was made, but predicts that it will be slow going until 2011-2012. Still, the firm sees a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 86 percent for femtocells and fixed mobile convergence (FMC) network elements. The report, while acknowledging the disappointing results to date, remains upbeat.
Network World, in a report on the Infonetics research, cites Webb's contention that vendors took a misstep by marketing femtocells as a way to improve call quality in homes. The problem is that most people have no overwhelming problem, so the sales pitch was murky at best. Still, the story also is upbeat, and quotes Airvana Vice President of Technology Woojune Kim's take that there is a need for the technology and that it is just a matter of time before the marketers get their messaging straight and the technology hits the big time.
Perhaps the femtocell home run will be in the 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) realm. Light Reading reports that NEC is working on a device. The story focuses on the change in strategy by the vendor, which relied on partners-Airvana, Kineto and Ubiquisys-for its 3G femtocells. The important takeaway isn't the strategy per se, but the fact that NEC is serious about 4G femtos.
The likelihood is that femtocells will be a major 4G technology, once the rollout -- which will be massive -- gets under way. Along the same lines, picoChip's design platform for LTE femtocells, the PC9608, picked up the "best enabling product /technology for LTE" award at the LTE World Summit in Amsterdam earlier this month.