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UK Femtocell manufacturer goes it alone

What happens if you bring the water to the horse?

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A UK manufacturer is planning to sell Femtocells direct to the public, just as soon as it can get enough punters signed up to force interoperation on the network operators.

The femtocell comes from HSL - Hay Systems Ltd. - who have eschewed the usual path of making deals with network operators in favour of a straight-to-consumer pitch. They'll need to get some registrations of interest if they're going to get network operators to hand over some spectrum, however, not to mention agreements to integrate the back ends.

Femtocells are tiny base stations that use the customer's broadband for backhaul and provide coverage with a house-and-garden sort of range. When the concept was first developed it was assumed that femtocells would sell via quad-play operators: companies that could prioritise their own voice traffic over their own broadband network to ensure quality of service. In fact, the UK's first femtocell deployment, from Vodafone, is purely parasitic and rides over any old broadband connection with best-effort quality.

Taking that to the next stage is HSL, who want to sell a femtocell direct to you at a comparable price to Vodafone's offering (£160). Their product has the ability to work with any network operator, or even multiple network operators, over your own broadband connection. To do that HSL needs two things: radio spectrum in which to operate, and integration into the network-operators' back end.

To get those things HSL has set up a web site, where punters can register an interest. They are using this to accumulate numbers, which the company can then take to the network operator in the hope that the operator will pay the ongoing cost of routing calls into their network.

But HSL's femtocell is 2G rather than 3G - reliable voice and broad handset support, in exchange for slower speeds - and every network operator in the UK is already testing 3G femtocell deployments, so one has to wonder why they would allow such a thing. Sell a customer a femtocell and they're even more locked in than with a contract - femtocells can't be unlocked and used on a rival's network - so there seems little incentive for the network operators to open up, unless HSL can generate overwhelming amounts of interest.

More interesting is the idea of a company such as UK01 providing HSL femtocells. UK01 is trying to build a GSM network using low-powered transmitters operating in the GSM guard bands, with roaming agreements to cover the gaps.

Femtocells would make a great deal of sense to such an operator. We asked HSL about this, and they admitted to being in talks with at least one company of this nature, but wouldn't be drawn on the details. ®

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