LTE femtocells may be more about coverage than speed

There has been some  debate about whether Long Term Evolution (LTE) femtocells are beneficial and whether operators see them as a critical part of their deployments--at least in the short-term. But the Femto Forum this week built its case for why femtocells are essential in delivering improvements in mobile network design and offer peak data rates.

The forum outlined these key benefits:

  • Femtocells will allow operators to make better use of their LTE spectrum by using the technology to enable the assigned high frequency bands to provide in-building coverage;
  • Femtocells can considerably lower the delivery cost per bit through savings in cell site installation, maintenance and backhaul costs;
  • LTE femtocells will trigger new services that should provide the environment for downloading and streaming media from the Internet or between devices in the home without loading the mobile network; and
  • Femtocells will enable operators to take a new, low-risk approach to LTE deployment that allows them to build their LTE networks incrementally in line with demand.
  • Until now, we have heard operators and vendors voice little interest in LTE femtocells. Verizon Wireless, expected to be first out of the gate with a commercial LTE network, hasn't announced plans for them. David Nowicki, vice president of products, sales and marketing with Airvana, recently told me a LTE femtocell might be pointless because the wired network inside the home that will backhaul the wireless traffic won't have enough throughput to handle the higher data speeds LTE provides.

    Peter Jarich, vice president with Current Analysis, said the bandwidth degradation my be worth it for coverage sake at high frequencies. "It may not even matter that you have enough backhaul to get the full part of LTE," he said. "That argument that makes sense is that you need small cells. That could be femtocells, picocells or whatever."

    LTE is approaching the theoretical maximum information transfer rate (otherwise known as Shannon's Law) and further improvements will only be possible by rolling out smaller cells.

    Interestingly, the Femto Forum highlighted femtocells in the enterprise, hotspots and metrozones where wired broadband connections offer significantly higher data throughput.

    According to a report in Unstrung, Telenor believes femtocells could play an important role in providing LTE indoor coverage and improving macro network capacity. Vodafone is looking at how LTE femtocells might play into how the operator deploys LTE in metro areas. Meanwhile, it's unclear what benefits LTE femtocells would provide to Verizon since it is deploying at 700 MHz--a frequency that has propagation advantages.

    Vendors are gearing up for demand. Motorola revealed it would stop any further development of 3G femtocells, and instead focus on LTE. The company claimed trying to integrate 3G femtocells into an existing W-CDMA networks was difficult, whereas the opportunity for LTE femtos looked increasingly attractive. Continuous Computing and picoChip announced they will join forces to produce a LTE femtocell and picocell reference implementation. The results of the joint work will enable network equipment providers to quickly get to market with a variety of small form factor LTE products, including femtocell and picocell base stations, the companies said.--Lynnette

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