2010 Year in Review: Femtocells--Still a waiting game

Vodafone lead the charge in Europe by launching its consumer-focused Sure Signal femtocell into the market. Not surprisingly--given the lack of consumer understanding of the technology--reaction was lacklustre.

In January, Vodafone made an aggressive move to gain attention and reduced the Sure Signal price by 70 per cent. This was reported to have improved sales of the device, but its profile continued to remain poor among potential users.

The technology was given another slap in February when Vivek Badrinath, Orange's executive VP for networks, said that femtocells were still too expensive for consumers. However, he admitted that it would continue to test femtocells, using equipment from NEC and Huawei, for use with enterprise customers.

Deutsche Telekom's new CTO, Olivier Baujard, also joined in and confirmed it had no mass market plan for femtocells, although he admitted the company was using the technology to solve specific indoor coverage challenges in its own shops or for certain customers.

Of particular note, both execs praised Wi-Fi as being a strong technology for use with residential gateways and data offload issues.

By mid-year, Vodafone had achieved a level of understanding of the consumer femtocell business and was now targeting UK consumers experiencing poor 3G coverage in their homes. Once these cellular blackspots had been identified, Vodafone then focused its advertising and marketing at households that could benefit from a Sure Signal femtocell.

According to Lee McDougall, Vodafone's senior network marketing manager for Sure Signal, "This is all about customer retention and attracting new subscribers from our rivals."

"Our biggest issue," claimed McDougall, "is awareness and educating consumers to the capabilities of femtocells. Consumers understand issues with poor TV or radio reception, now it's up to us to raise the awareness that the same problems can occur with cellular coverage anywhere across the world."

With Vodafone remaining the largest European operator with a commitment to femtocells, it announced in November trials using the technology to provide coverage in hotels and other public spaces.

The company's CTO also admitted that the Sure Signal femtocells might be upgraded in the future following complaints from some subscribers over the price of the box and its performance in providing coverage in some older houses.

"We were the first to bring such a device to market so we have a lot of influence. Our roadmap [for the Sure Signal unit] is to listen to a lot of customers and feed it back to the manufacturing process," said the CTO.

The experience of Vodafone will have interested other European operators. However, while analysts forecast that 2011 will be a strong year for femtocells, it would appear that Europe might not be the hotspot for this activity as service providers mull their options.