Femtocells: Is the future bright for Europe?

While the recent Femtocell conference in London dwelled on the industry's achievement in standardisation, interoperability, applications and advances in silicon, less was made public from those that questioned the future success of the technology.

This failure to highlight the issues could be forgiven following the groundbreaking announcement from Vodafone that it would launch consumer femtos this month in Europe. But femtocell enthusiasts should perhaps take heed of some of the comments made by others that attended the event but didn't make the headlines.

The industry watcher, Mathieu Limousi, project leader at French consultancy group iDate, believes the global femto market will generate €875 million in revenues for operators by 2013, based on nearly 10 million units being shipped by this date. However, he maintains that service providers (integrated and mobile) will have invested around €730 million on femtocells by the same date.

If correct, then these figures present a worrying viewpoint on any expected ROI, unless the consumer can be persuaded to purchase the femtocell. However, Limousi claims that "the market is not as promising as expected, because the added value a femtocell solution offers is too low in the view of the end users."

Interestingly, he claims that the US market will consume around 50 per cent of all femtocell shipments--largely driven by consumers needing to provide better indoor voice coverage--with Asia/Pac then taking about 26 per cent of the total. Europe will be in third position taking most of the remaining share.

The recent announcements from AT&T, Sprint, NTT DoCoMo and Softbank would perhaps support this view as these operators push forward with deployment plans for femtocells.

However, the French operator, SFR, flagged up the issue of rising consumer fears over RF transmissions, and in particular growing concern in France and elsewhere over the health risks associated with Wi-Fi and cellular antennae. The company claims that French public libraries have been forced to remove Wi-Fi hotspots and mobile operators stopped from building masts near schools or homes. "How will we be able to argue in favour of introducing a base station into the home without a consumer backlash?"

For its part Vodafone seems to be adopting a very quiet (invisible?) marketing strategy to its femtocell deployment. Pricing and product data for the Vodafone Access Gateway is on its web site for those intent on finding the details. But high-profile, I think not. -Paul