Much buzz around Femtocells, Wi-Fi at MWC

OvumThe recent Mobile World Congress (MWC) saw a lot of announcements surrounding both femtocells and Wi-Fi. This activity highlights the growing maturity of these technologies in the mobile industry, and a growing technological convergence that the MWC has been slow to reflect. Combined with other developments in network technology, it is also a sign that network planning is becoming increasingly complex. This has serious ramifications for operators that are building investment cases for network evolution as too much complexity could lead to suboptimal deployments that fail to maximize the potential efficiencies of new technologies.
The MWC saw a large number of femtocell deployment announcements. Most notable was the announcement from Telefonica Spain, but MegaFon in Russia and Network Norway also announced commercial launches, while Zain announced a trial in Saudi Arabia.
More interesting was the growing range of form factors in which femtocells are appearing. At MWC, we saw femtocell technology that had been scaled up to become enterprise solutions, or metropolitan femtocells that offer outdoor coverage.
This raises the question of where does a femtocell end and a picocell begin? We also saw some interesting concepts using USB connectivity. PicoChip’s third-generation silicon can be deployed in a dongle-sized device. Ubiquisys displayed its SFR USB access points, which fit into the existing Neuf box. Ubiquisys also showed Softbank’s integrated Wi-Fi, femtocell, and broadband router, which demonstrated how the technology is becoming increasingly integrated.
One of the drivers for this change is the marked improvement in femtocell industrial design due to increased involvement from original design manufacturers. For example, Sercomm are taking Ubiquisys’ technology and building innovative designs for SFR, while PicoChip showed Vodafone’s forthcoming SureSignal box, and the design is a marked improvement over the first iteration.
There is also a growing array of business models. The most notable is Softbank, which is distributing femtocells that are enabled with free Wi-Fi. SK Telecom has a data-only femtocell that is designed to be used purely to support its offload strategy. USB form factors enable integrated operators such as SFR to upgrade existing deployed broadband routers more cheaply. In the future, this could enable fixed operators to charge mobile operators for the deployment of operator-specific plug-ins.
The MWC also saw some interesting developments in the Wi-Fi space. The most notable was Ruckus Wireless’ ZoneFlex Mobile Internet Smart Wi-Fi System. As a sign of the increasing importance of Wi-Fi to mobile operators, ZoneFlex integrates the Wi-Fi network with the cellular network, and provides seamless authentication as users move from one technology to the other. NSN’s smart Wi-Fi solution shows how even radio access network vendors are getting in on the act. WeFi also launched a carrier-grade Wi-Fi solution.
Ruckus spoke to us about its future plans. The company is proposing to use its Wi-Fi expertise as backhaul for small LTE cells. It is an interesting concept as the small LTE cell discussion tends to focus on radio access and not how the traffic will be moved back to the core network. Wi-Fi mesh networks could be useful, although as with Wi-Fi in general, we think it will be of more interest to integrated operators with existing Wi-Fi assets.
The rising profile of Wi-Fi raised an interesting question surrounding the focus of the MWC. While the event is still called the Mobile World Congress, the industry is increasingly converging. The MWC saw a growing presence from Wi-Fi players and the traditional wireline stalwart Cisco, but beyond that, all the talk was of mobile solutions to mobile problems. This is in stark contrast to the Broadband World Forum last year, and demonstrates that a shift in the MWC’s focus will be necessary as it moves forward.
Another interesting concept arising from the MWC was the vast array of options that need to be considered by operators as they plan their next-generation access networks.
Femtocells, picocells, Wi-Fi, small cells (such as Alcatel-Lucent’s new lightRadio), repeaters, distributed antenna systems, smart antennae, traffic management solutions, and the evolved packet core all promise to give operators infinite flexibility in how they build and operate their mobile networks. With integrated or mobile-only operators facing a similar array of options, it makes it extremely difficult for operators to plan for the future, which has enormous ramifications for future investment strategies.
The increased complexity suggests that a new paradigm in network planning is needed, but there is currently no best practice around which to standardize. The vendors we spoke to at the event were extremely eager to exploit the potential consulting opportunities, but they have vested interests, despite their best efforts to convince us and operators otherwise.
Trial and error is the only realistic way forward until enough experience is gained to establish best practices. However, the worst outcome would be for operators to use the new technologies in the same ways that they used the old. This would compromise the efficiencies available and threaten operator returns on the huge investments needed to meet the rising demand for data.
In intensely competitive markets, this could mark the difference between success and failure, and we believe that some operators will fail in transitioning their networks to a data-centric world.