Femtocells - the consumer challenge

While the benefits to mobile operators of femtocells are becoming better understood--largely by savings in Capex and Opex, how consumers will be educated and persuaded to install and use these devices remains unclear. One model is for femtocells to be made available through retail outlets with sufficient documentation to enable the proficient (hopefully) consumer to install the device--as is done today with WLAN access points.

However, the more likely route is for operators to market the unit as part of a new (or an extension to an existing) contract, thereby disguising the cost whilst retaining ownership and complete operational management. But how this is communicated, or marketed, to the subscriber is a huge undertaking, claims the chairman of the Femto Forum, Simon Saunders. "The real starting point for femtocells is with mass deployment within the consumer market. While there is a viable and less cost-sensitive enterprise opportunity for the technology, the benefits only accrue to the mobile operator when they are installed in their many millions. Achieving this, in terms of positioning the service correctly in the mind of the consumer, is the biggest challenge facing operators today."

While Sprint and Softbank have both deployed femtocells, many operators are reported to be in their final stages of launch preparations--sorting the back-office support, provisioning of the service, etc, having satisfied themselves that the technology is sufficiently mature to deploy into a consumer market within the next six to nine months. But, as was the case with the WiFi access devices, consumers continue to experience installation problems, and femtocells are certain to be more complex--given their need to be paired with a specific set of cell phones and connected to the homeowners' broadband connection. This is very new territory for mobile operators and mishandling the launch and not providing adequate consumer support could be damaging. Reassurance can perhaps be gained by the numerous trials undertaken by the majority of the larger mobile operators to prove the technical capabilities of femtocells and, one hopes, making it easy for the consumer. -Paul