Better coverage at a lower cost

The Femto Forum has grown from a group established by seven small femtocells vendors into a 38-member telecom clubhouse now including leading cellcos and vendors. Femto Forum chairman Dr Simon Saunders tells senior reporter Fiona Chau why the forum is vital for the development of interoperable femto technologies and how femtocells will transform the industry

Wireless Asia: What is the role and scope of Femto Forum‾ What are the primary objectives the forum aims to achieve in the next 12 months‾

Simon Saunders: The founding principle of the forum was to prevent fragmentation and encourage a cooperative working environment for vendors and operators. The cellular industry has seen the drawbacks of technology fragmentation before when a war erupted between GSM and CDMA that still means many consumers can't use their phone abroad.

The key to ensuring femtocell technology reaches its potential is for the forum to encourage all the various vendors to collaborate to ensure their solutions are interoperable and meet the expectations of operators. In addition, the forum needs to lobby regulators for various alterations to policies and to ensure common marketing strategies are adopted across the femtocell eco-system.

How does the inclusion of both mobile operators and major telecom equipment vendors help promote and accelerate the development and commercial deployment of femtocell‾

To adopt common solutions that are interoperable, it is paramount that the major vendors are all on board. And if vendors want to develop a successful device, they need to listen to what the operators want, so the forum must have a strong operator membership.

What impact are femtocells having on the telecom industry‾

Femtocells dramatically alter how mobile operators roll out their networks. Femtocells provide mobile coverage in the home, use the subscriber's broadband connection to send the traffic back to the operator and come in the form of a box about the size of a Wi-Fi router. By deploying femtocells operators can provide better coverage while significantly lowering their costs. In the longer term, femtocells mean operators will not need to invest so much in their outdoor networks. Femtocells give subscribers perfect cellular coverage and faster mobile broadband in the home as well as a more competitive voice and data tariff and a range of new services.

What are the key benefits for operators‾

Femtocells solve the major in-building coverage issue facing operators. Radio signals from mobile networks do not penetrate walls very well, especially at higher frequencies such as those used in 3G and Wimax networks. This means that without indoor base stations mobile operators must roll out significantly more outdoor base stations to provide good coverage in consumers' homes.

The key benefit of femtocells is that they allow mobile operators to expand their mobile coverage in an extremely targeted manner (i.e. solely in a paying customer's home not his non-paying neighbor as with a macro-network cell) and at low cost.

In addition, because femtocells use the subscriber's broadband connection and power they reduce the operator's backhaul costs and electricity bill. These savings are anything but trivial - a recent ABI Research report found that femtocells could generate savings from lower backhaul and energy costs of over $70 billion by 2012.

 

Backhaul alone can account for 30% of operator's overall operational expenditure.

What's the status of femtocell technologies and products‾

Most major telecoms vendors and several smaller specialist vendors have already launched femtocell devices. These devices are being trialed by various operators around the world. It is important to understand that consumers can only buy femtocells through their mobile operator as they use licensed spectrum. It is possible that operators will support a sales model where users can buy femtocells at high street stores but the devices will only work when activated by the operator.

How about commercial deployment‾

In September Sprint-Nextel became the first mobile operator in the world to roll out femtocells. Most major operator groups around the world are at various stages of RFPs and technical trials. We'll see more deployments in mid-2008 in the prime femtocell markets which are Asia, North America and Europe.

What is the average price point of femtocells‾

The average price per unit depends on the volumes ordered. When mobile operators order significant numbers, then the prices will be attractive. The key to ensuring prices are low is for vendors to support standardized interoperable femtocells as they will use common components thereby introducing economies of scale as well as create a competitive environment adding to lower prices.

Femtocells can support various technologies (2G, 3G, HSDPA/LTE, Wimax). Which technology presents greater business opportunities‾

Sprint Nextel deployed 2G femtocells, but most operators will be deploying 3G and 3.5G (EV-DO or HSDPA) femtocells. In the longer term since femtocells can dramatically reduce the costs of next-generation network deployment, they are likely to have a major role to play in Wimax, LTE and UMB.

What has the forum done in the past four months to address issues such as standardization, interoperability and regulation‾

The forum's working groups have been making great strides in these areas. Already vendors have agreed on common radio and network approaches, which aid interoperability. The forum has already discovered that the few regulatory barriers facing femtocells were largely implemented with the macro network in mind and will be straightforward to alter so femtocells are unaffected.

Are femtocell and UMA (unlicensed mobile access) competitive or complementary‾

There is a widespread misunderstanding that UMA equates to dual-mode cellular-Wi-Fi services. UMA is in fact one of the protocols that enable potentially millions of IP connections to be integrated into a GSM network core. Both dual-mode services and femtocells rely on IP connections such as cable broadband or DSL to connect into the GSM core so both can use UMA.

The question is really whether operators should use femtocells or dual-mode services. The forum certainly believes femtocells are a better option because all existing handsets are compatible with femtocells, whereas only a very small number of dual-mode handsets are on the market.

Additionally, cellular radio technology is very power efficient, providing better battery life than Wi-Fi as well as offering a significantly higher quality of service.

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