First up lets explain what a femtocell is as I’m sure there are plenty of people who have never heard of the technology. In it’s simplest form a femtocell is a mini 3G cellsite that will cover an area the size of an average house. Unlike a normal cellsite however a femtocell connects into your broadband connection and uses this as the backhaul connection into the mobile providers network. The Alcatel Lucent box is around the size of a typical wireless router and can easily be installed by somebody with basic computer knowledge as it simply plugs into an existing router or modem and all configuration is handled remotely.
While the technology has been around for several years only a handful of mobile operators have so far publically trialed or deployed femtocells. The Alcatel Lucent boxes were launched by Vodafone UK into the marketplace on July 1st 2009, in what appears to be very much a trial of the technology to both understand customer acceptance to the devices and to test real world performance. Vodafone UK have marketed the product as the Vodafone Access gateway.
Alcatel Lucent’s data shows that the bulk of mobile calls are made indoors. It’s no surprise that delivering inbuilding mobile coverage is one of the toughest challenges for mobile operators due to the inability of radio signals to easily penetrate through building material, in particular concrete and steel. No matter how many sites are deployed delivering good inbuilding coverage will always be a challenge and this creates a market for low cost solutions such as femtocells which are significantly cheaper to deploy than traditional cellsites. The target market for femtocells in the Vodafone UK rollout has been people with poor or non existent coverage, anybody who’s lived in the UK will know that inbuilding mobile coverage, particularly in many of the Victorian era houses, can be extremely patchy. Unlike New Zealand that has two nationwide 3G networks many UK residents also only have GSM coverage in rural areas so the femtocell offers them the ability to have 3G coverage in their home or workplace.
Once installed the femtocell will typically be locked down to a limited number of handsets which can be controlled by the end user. They are not designed to work as a regular cellsite where any mobile phone can connect and they only support a limited number of simultaneous calls. The femtocell establishes an encrypted IPsec connection back to the mobile operators network over the internet and requires approximately 60kbps of bandwidth for a regular 3G voice call or 150kbps for a 3G video call. The most obvious downside of this is that a poor quality internet connection or a home modem/router that does not feature properly configured QoS (Quality of Service) could easily have the ability to cause poor quality voice calls.
Femtocells aren’t just about improving coverage however. They open up the potential to deliver products and services that are currently not available on mobile handsets. A mobile operator could choose to deploy a home phone service and let you use your mobile phone as a regular phone while connected to the femtocell. Alcatel Lucent’s femtocell even allows multiple phones connected to the femtocell to ring either all at once or in a round robin fashion. Also in development is hardware that would allow VoIP or PBX integration allowing you to use a single handset for both mobile calls as well as the ability for the phone to appear as a local extension on a PBX when connected to the femtocell. While this is currently available with dual mode handsets that support WiFi using the 3G radio offers significantly better battery life and allows a far greater range of handsets to be used.
The Alcatel Lucent box also features home networking capabilities which lets handsets share data with the local network. Demonstrated was the ability to syncronise data off the handset with a PC on the same network, something that currently requires connecting over the internet to achieve. A myriad of possible opportunities exist to expand on this functionality.
So what does the future hold? The concept of femtocells is great – there are always going to be areas where mobile networks simply can’t cover and they offer a low cost way of delivering mobile coverage. As mobile data speeds and usage increases it may make sense for companies who rely on mobile data applications to have their own femtocells to guarantee mobile data speeds. Mobile carriers on the other hand have to ensure that they don’t rely on femtocells rather than deploying their own infrastructure and they also have to work on pricing and business models – paying for the device and then paying regular rates for both voice calling and data while also using up their own broadband cap for the backhaul isn’t something many people are going to be happy with.
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