Femto World Summit is all smiles (mostly)

Deployments doubled since November. Yay

The femtocell industry's third annual event in London is taking place, and the sector's rapid shift from interesting concept to real world commercial market is highlighted by the wide range of vendors and carriers pledging support.

Global femtocell deployments have more than doubled in the past nine months, according to a report from Informa, which counts 16 operator commitments including 13 commercial launches - up from eight commitments last November. Informa expects the femtocell market to hit the 49m unit mark by 2014, supporting 114m mobile users. Femto unit sales would reach 25m in 2014 alone.

The most recent moves have been into new geographies, with Softbank and KDDI going live in Japan; and new markets, notably the enterprise. Both Vodafone - expanding its residential UK service to business users in Spain - and AT&T, are now focusing on the corporate segment, as the technology evolves to support larger number of users and more advanced enterprise functionality.

AT&T's executive director of radio networks, Gordon Mansfield, told the conference that the cellco has completed its nationwide roll-out of residential femtocells and is now looking to the enterprise. "Femtocells are now available to our customers anywhere in the continental US," he said. "Now we're focusing on the enterprise we want to integrate femtocells with IP PBXs." However, he stressed there was no firm timescale for this move.

The operator defended its decision to apply new data caps to its femtocells as well as smartphones and dongles, which seemed to fly in the face of claims about offloading traffic to the tiny base stations. It said the traffic still had to travel via its core, creating congestion issues, because of US regulations insisting that carriers are able to examine all the data on their networks. AT&T sells its MicroCell 3G for $149.99, but customers have the option to take out a dedicated $19.99 monthly plan that provides unlimited femto voice minutes in return for a $100 rebate. Existing AT&T broadband customers can additionally receive an extra $49.99 rebate, which makes the femtocell free.

The next stage is likely to be the use of femtocells to create metrozones outdoors, usurping some of the role traditionally taken by picocells, but bringing femto signature qualities such as advanced self-management. Ubiquisys is one of the specialist vendors building on an initial product range in the home to introduce a metro femto, and according to Informa, Vodafone - which has enthused about the potential of metro deployments for a couple of years - is already using outdoor femto technology in shopping malls in Qatar.

The key interest for consumers may be better reception indoors, though carriers will need to supplement that business case to keep expanding uptake, especially if they are charging upfront for the devices - homezone tariffs, home media hubs and fixed/mobile convergence applications are all options potentially enabled by femtos. For carriers, though, looking to relieve data stress on their 3G networks and lower their cost of data delivery with 4G, the real appeal of femtocells is to offload traffic from the macrocell.

"The mobile data boom - and the increased demand on capacity it has led to - is the biggest challenge currently facing mobile networks," said Simon Saunders, chairman of the Femto Forum. "Femtocells represent the natural solution for offloading this data. They allow mobile operators to significantly improve the mobile broadband experience as well as their other services without incurring the costs that macro upgrades would require."

The Forum - which unlike some industry bodies focuses its research and activities firmly on real world experiences rather than technical and political debates - published its latest research, commissioned from Parks Associates, at the event. This found that awareness in the US market, where three cellcos now have femto services, remains low at only 10% of mobile consumers, but once explained, the technology and services appealed to 56%. Of those that were already aware of femtocells, a huge 89% found them appealing.

Saunders commented: "Once consumers are told what the benefits are they're not just interested, but willing to pay for them" - an important point for carriers, which are unwilling to add yet another subsidy bill to their cost base, but have faced criticism from some quarters for, in effect, charging consumers to address poor 3G network quality. The main consumer interest in femtos emerged, unsurprisingly, as indoor coverage, followed by reduced homezone rates, increased battery life because of low power signals, and faster data rates.

In addition, 72% said they would be interested in signing up for proposed femto services such as virtual home numbers, or family noticeboards, with over half of respondents being willing to pay $5 a month for one such service. This indicates the ability to push the femtocell to users with no coverage issues - vital not just to achieving scale for the industry but addressing cellcos' offload targets, especially in the urban areas where data strain is often highest, but indoor quality highest.

In a new white paper on this critical offload issue, the Forum expanded on its existing business case model, developed with Signals Research Group, to show that a femtocell can lower the cost per Gb of data delivered by four times with current technology and significantly more with future enhancements.

The white paper says the benefits go beyond easing congestion on the RAN and backhaul. Femtos can also reduce the cost of data delivery and improve quality of service, by offloading signalling traffic from 'chatty' smartphones, managed by the radio network controller. This capability is included in 3GPP femto standards and was recently implemented by picoChip for its system-on-chip architecture. Also, in contrast to Wi-Fi offload, revenue generating traffic remains on the operator's network, since the femto is an extension of the RAN, says the Forum; while the devices allow carriers to respond to data spikes in a rapid and targeted way by deploying new capacity almost overnight.

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