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Femtocells at tipping point: Don't want to become also-RANs

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By contrast, Broadcom has pulled off its usual trick of perfect timing in its key market, the home, but is not making many noises about the main RAN.

It bought Israeli specialist Percello last year, giving the start-up the scale to go after major customers, and appears to have made its move just as the sector is set to gain critical mass – a process it carried off most effectively when it entered consumer Wi-Fi.

For Ubiquisys, the key has been to transfer many of the software features of its smaller products to its outdoor offering, including its SON techniques. It announced this small cell a few weeks ago, along with alliances with TI for the baseband and Intel for the apps processor.

But at the summit it was focusing on Broadcom again, launching a fully integrated femtocell home gateway, which will allow operators to deploy multiple services such as fixed broad-band, mobile and entertainment applications from one device in the home.

TI's SoC launch

The UK firm is the first announced customer for the new TI SoCs, which made their official debut this week. The two offerings are designed to be compatible with its existing base station products, but targeted at picocells and metrocells as well as the enterprise.

Brian Glinsman, general manager of communications infrastructure at TI's DSP systems group, believes that tiny, self-organising base stations will grow to about 20 per cent of the total sector in three to five years, from virtually nothing now.

The firm's initial products for that hoped-for surge are the TCI6612 and TCI6614 SoCs, both with production-ready software. Both chips will sample in the third quarter of this year.

The SoCs integrate a mixture of different processing elements, according to the company, including radio accelerators, network and security coprocessors, DSPs and an ARM processor. They support layers 1, 2 and 3 and transport processing for small cell base stations. Both use TI's C667x DSP family based on its KeyStone mul-ticore architecture, which includes both fixed and floating point ca-pabilities in a multicore DSP.

The TCI6612, which has two C66x DSP cores and an ARM Cortex A8, supports 64 users but only one air interface at a time – 2G, 3G, HSPA or LTE. The TCI6614, featuring four C66x DSP cores and the Cortex A8, offers simultaneous dual-mode, running two standards at the same time, and can support 128 users together with MIMO antenna arrays.

While TI and Freescale, which announced a small cell SoC at Mobile World Congress, defend their base station territory from newcomers like Picochip, the interesting unknown quantity is Qualcomm.

The company has been active in the standards and forum, and has announced its own product, but outside the CDMA world this has seen surprisingly little headway to date.

One of its key decisions will be whether to re-enter the base station side of the market, where it only played in CDMA, or to stay focused on seeing off Broadcom in the two US companies' increasingly bloody battle-ground in the digital home.

Other chip firms will be trying their hand too – analyst Stephane Teral of Infonetics told EETimes he would also pick out Altera, DesignArt, Mindspeed and Xilinx. Intel and femto applications.

Intel raises profile

And then there's Intel, the surprise candidate to leverage femtocells to push its silicon into a new space. The company's communications infrastructure division has been raising its profile recently, raising expectations that it will look around for a base station base-band/SoC provider, so that it can assemble a full offering as it is seeking to do in devices.

In the meantime, though, it is playing with its existing products, its Atom and Core apps processors and its network processors. It is taking a two-pronged approach to the new-look wireless network.

One is Cloud-RAN, where it has a key project with China Mobile, working on a fully virtualised baseband processing system in the cloud, supporting thousands of stripped-down base stations, many of which will be small cells.

The other is the "edge cloud", which takes the opposite route, reducing the amount of traffic to the center by putting intelligence and processing power right into the base station. This is a way to get Atom into the base station, as seen in the alliance with Ubiquisys.

One side-effect of that will be to support localised applications for selected areas or user groups, turning the base station into a computer and an apps platform. This has been a goal of residential femtocells, and while those efforts had gone rather quiet at last year's Summit, this year they were firmly back on the agenda.

In particular, the revived interest was highlighted by a collaboration between Telecom Italia, Alcatel-Lucent and Accenture. The partners announced the industry‟s first standards-based software development kit (SDK) for the creation of femtocell applications, harnessing the Femto Forum's API Specification initiative. Initially, the SDK tar-gets Android phones and supports standard Java APIs.

Also on the software side, Continuous Computing announced Trillium Femtotality, a portable software suite which includes turnkey femtocell application software. This aims to help network equipment providers to create femto access points with lower cost and time to market, even if they are not traditional players in the mobile space.

Femtotality comes pre-integrated with Continuous's Trillium 3G and LTE protocol software, and includes radio resource management and SON (self-organising network) capabilities along with OA&M (operations, administration and management) supporting the TR-069 and TR-196 standards.

Copyright © 2011, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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