Femtocell a tortoise not a hare

We have taken a conservative view of the femtocell opportunity, and activity during the past 18 months has only served to vindicate that approach. The technology has continued to mature, but extensive testing by operators saw femtocells disappear from the limelight during 2009. Only at the end of the year and in early 2010 did femtocells re-emerge.

However, since then services have not exploded onto the public consciousness. Rather they have been launched almost by stealth, with limited fanfare outside the femtocell community and now number just 12 commercial launches worldwide.

Trials have taken a similar path, with announcements being made and then very little being heard for many months. This was to be expected given the costs, complexities and potential risks associated with launching a consumer product that directly impacts an operator's core asset - its network.

Furthermore, we expect this slow, steady progress to continue for the next two to three years at least, with early adopters only then becoming more confident and evolving their business models ahead of their later-launching peers.

Additionally, it is important to remember that femtocell alternatives exist (and have done so for years), and have the potential to fill the void created by the slow progress. Wi-Fi, smart repeaters, and distributed antenna systems are all available today and could meet operator needs. In some instances we can even foresee them delaying the need for operators to investigate femtocells.

One of the key reasons for this is that the costs associated with femtocells are too commonly focused on the access point rather than the total deployment.

Network integration, back-office systems integration, and sales and support staff training are all essential cost elements and complexities to consider. Many of the aforementioned alternatives are simpler to incorporate into a network planning scenario, and thus do not face quite the same complexity.

Nonetheless, these alternatives do not enable operators to evolve the business model over time as with femtocells. Today, all operators' femtocell strategies are focused on highlighting coverage, as this is the easiest and simplest business model to convey and deploy. It's still tricky though. Customers may resist what is effectively paying twice for coverage.

Over time we see this evolving: first into home-zone tariffs to encourage greater uptake, and then on to a capacity-focused offering - once a critical mass of femtocells has been deployed. Eventually integration with home gateways will appear in two to three years' time.

Steven Hartley is a principal analyst for Ovum in London