Femtocells and the consumer electronics industry

The profile of femtocells has taken another step forward with the announcement from Sony and Toshiba that they are joining the Femto Forum. The involvement of these two huge consumer electronics (CE) brands can only help to add weight to the burgeoning success of femtocells, and provide consumers with a reference point when they are faced with the decision of whether to install such a device in their homes.

Whilst it will be some years before we are likely to see femtocells with such well-known and established brand names, the involvement of Sony and Toshiba will see them take the technology away from the conventional (dull) form-factors we have seen with such devices as WiFi access points and cable modems. There has already been talk of integrating femtocell capabilities into photo frames, set-top boxes, TVs and the like--or providing a stylish wireless access point that would include WiFi, Bluetooth and femto capabilities.

But the involvement of the large CE brands could potentially bring them into conflict with mobile operators and handset vendors. Accepting that the mobile industry has traditionally not had a strong presence in the home, any attempts by the mobile community to enter the consumer femtocell market could be threatened by the emergence of well-known and accepted CE brands.

This involvement of large CE manufacturers is not without concern. Their knowledge of cellular air interfaces and the integration of the femtocell into mobile operators' core back-office systems is, at best, slight. While the Femto Forum will strive in the coming months to ensure that standards and interoperability tests minimise any likely conflicts between the femtocell and the handsets and back-office systems provided by mobile operators, this could potentially be a major stumbling block for the mass-market acceptance of femtocells.

This may explain why operators, certainly in Europe, are taking a very cautious approach to the commercial deployment of femtocells. The accepted strategy would now seem to involve operators targeting particular niche segments of their subscriber base to measure the reaction to femtocells and then adjusting the technology and marketing message appropriately.

This approach is already underway with various European operators making very small (typically less than 100 users) deployments, setting a trend that more operators will follow during 2009. -Paul