3G Femtos: Wait 'Til Next Year

Carl Weinschenk

The emergence of a new technology always is greeted with great enthusiasm by marketing departments, who use their dollar sign-colored glasses to see all the benefits while minimizing or skipping questions and challenges.


It's good news when concrete contract and deployment announcements are made and the public discourse shifts more fully to real issues of implementation. The subtle message is that the technology has a large degree of internal acceptance within organizations-in this case service providers and carriers-and is well on the road to commercialization.


It's in that context that this report on femtocells from EJL Wireless Research should be read. Indeed, the actual news, as related in the press announcement, can be characterized as guardedly optimistic. EJL Founder and President Earl Lum says the market is still in the test phase, but that "intermediate volume unit shipments" can be expected next year. It is not smooth sailing, however. Says Lum:


The bottom line is that femtocell technology continues to improve but the market isn't quite ready yet for prime time. We believe that critical issues remain which will prevent a seamless user experience


The report raises technical and marketing questions. On the technical side, there are challenges in creating a seamless relationship between the femtocell and the macrocell in which it sits. The marketing issue simple and basic: The trials have revealed light demand.


The good news is that at least some information is becoming available, and that Lum still feels justified in a fairly optimistic prediction for next year. He does, however, sound a bit impatient for more information:


Very few vendors are tackling these challenges with test data instead of hype, and we applaud Ubiquisys for being the only femtocell vendor to both have and share live field test data in a congested RF interference environment between numerous femtocells on a shared RF carrier.


Announcements-such as Airvana's deal with Sprint Nextel announced earlier this month and the carrier's claim in late June that it will beat AT&T to market with 3G femto -- further buttress the perception that real progress is being made.


Prcocessor offers a very nice overview of 3G femtocells. It describes what they are, their similarities and differences with Wi-Fi access points (APs), and their strategic importance to the telephone companies. Perhaps the key difference between APs and femtocells is that the latter uses licensed spectrum and the former doesn't. This leads to a difference in cost and, according to the story, requires a higher level of control by the carrier. The piece, which points out that femtocells are most useful for residences and small and branch offices, is a good link for non-technical decisions makers who ultimately will choose which of the approaches-if either -- to use.


The signs are positive for 3G femtocells, and it looks like next year will be the one in which the category jumps into the mainstream. After that, the progress may be steady: EJL predicts that 9.5 million units will be deployed by 2013. That respectable, though not overwhelming, number suggests that mass market must be reached next year.

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