Here Come the Femtocells, Finally

Carl Weinschenk

Perhaps the thought occurs to me because the baseball season is starting this weekend. Femtocells, like young players with stellar minor league statistics but middling early careers, face a crossroads.


Few doubt the potential of these tools, which can solve many challenges faced by the telephone industry. These devices -- small base stations that sit in a home or office and link mobile devices to the network -- reduce costs by using the customer's broadband connectivity instead of expensive and crowded cellular bandwidth to carry traffic. Femtos also improve coverage. Cellular signals' difficulty in permeating structures -- which will get worse as higher frequencies are employed for 4G -- is alleviated by the presence of a femto in the building.


Thus, femtos are a no-brainer-conceptually. The real-world obstacle was that they were simply too expensive to gain much traction. This problem appears to be on the cusp of being solved, however.


In December, 2007, Ajay Gupta-then Aricent's Vice President of Wireless and Convergence -- told me that a price point of between $100 and $150 must be metfor millions of femtocells to be sold. We may be there. This week, PC World reports Ubiquisys said that that the wholesale cost of its G3-mini femto is below the century mark. The story, which provides details on the inexpensive widget, says nine operators are selling femtocell-based services and a number of others have trials on tap.


While there is a bit of drama over the precise cost of the G3-a competitor and an analyst voice skepticism about the price tag-there is little doubt that femtocells are hot. Last week, iSuppli released research predicting that shipments will rise from 571,000 in 2009 to 1.9 million this year, more than a three-fold jump. The numbers for the coming year are just as impressive: The firm says that 7.2 million will ship next year, 23.9 million in 2012, and 39.6 million in 2013.

The report says heavy hitters such as Qualcomm and Texas Instruments are designing their entry strategies. Test and measurement vendors also are getting involved. Concludes the report:

Taking into account such developments across the mobile ecosystem, iSuppli expects 2010 to be the year in which femtocell units become a key ingredient in the foundation for future radio access network topologies.


Get ready for widespread and creative offers. After describing femtocells, this InformationWeek blogger points to a new offer from AT&T. Significantly, the price point is around that signaled by Ubiquisys and, two-and-a-half years ago, by Gupta: The AT&T Microcell is available for $100 or even for free, depending on the bundle. The femto is self-activated and can handle four devices simultaneously. It can remember 10 devices, meaning that frequent visitors are able to use the femtocell without adjustments to any settings.


This seems to be the season that femtocells either crack the lineup or are relegated to the end of the bench. A lot of smart money is on the femtocell, but they must prove themselves on the field against major league competition.

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