The year's main gathering of the femtocell industry, the Femtocell World Summit in London, started with a bang when Vodafone UK announced that it would launch its service as early as July 1, a first for Europe.
Many European and Asian operators have trialled the tiny indoor base stations, and have been forceful in driving standards, but commercial deployments have so far been confined to the US, where Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel are live with limited function CDMA devices and AT&T is to follow soon, using fully blown products from Cisco and the UK's IP access. Now Vodafone, which has conducted a range of trials in various territories and with different suppliers, has delivered its always hefty endorsement by leapfrogging rival triallists like Telefonica/O2 with a live offering.
Vodafone 's move is important for the sector not because it is supporting any groundbreaking applications in the first stage - the launch is firmly focused on improved indoor signals - but because it quietens the major source of nervousness about femtos, that they are not sufficiently tried and tested for mass consumer roll-out. This has led some suppliers to argue that operators will not move beyond trials for at least another year and possibly longer, delaying the payback for vendors and other involved parties.
Vodafone is understood to be using femtocells from Alcatel-Lucent, probably the most prominent tier one wireless vendor to offer its own devices rather than badging those of a specialist supplier. ALU's products run on the architecture of UK-based picoChip, which also supplies the silicon for ip.access and others. Live roll-outs by Vodafone and AT&T will be valuable for the credibility of the whole segment, and for the sustainability of the specialist start-ups like picoChip.
There are many reasons for operator interest in femtocells, notably improved indoor coverage; offloading of traffic from the macro network; user funded backhaul (usually via a DSL line); a cost efficient way to increase capacity in existing networks or build out news ones such as LTE in a staged manner; and the potential for new applications and tariff option, based around the user's 'homezone' and the femto's presence and location capabilities.
Vodafone, like Sprint Nextel in the US, is starting simple, presenting improved indoor coverage as the main consumer benefit, but it promises more advanced services in the future. The Vodafone Access Gateway will be available in stores and online from July 1, providing a router-sized box that plugs into the broadband line to create a homezone. This can be used by up to four standard handsets or other 3G devices at one time. The Gateway is available from free, depending on data plan, with options from £15 ($24) a month. It can also be purchased upfront, with no commitment, for £160, or on a monthly charge from £5.