Moto dreams of femto in a picture frame

Imagine being able to kill two birds with one stone: framing that abstract painting your Aunt Sally gave you and boosting your in-residence mobile wireless reception. That's the theory behind Motorola's new concept that combines a femtocell with a picture frame.

"We're just playing around with some different packaging ideas," said Fred Wright, Motorola's senior vice president, cellular networks. "It's a cool idea ... but I don't think any one solution is going to be the perfect solution for everybody. The problem with the picture frame, although it's an interesting concept, is you have to want to put a picture on the wall and the frame has to be appealing to the customer."

Details, details, details. Besides, concepts don't often get caught up in details; those are for later. Motorola is doing some focus group studies to find out what people think not just about picture frames but about femtocells themselves. Femtos, Wright said, might be more sizzle than substance. With the exception of Sprint Nextel, which is deploying some early second generation products, there's nothing in the field and certainly nothing in the stores-retail or phone-right now.

"All the femto products that are being played with in the global market today are in the trial stage. We're evaluating the technology concept to see if the dogs will eat dog food and to determine whether or not customers really like this type of product," Wright said.

Femtocells, for the uninitiated, are small antennas that receive and retransmit spectrum-specific wireless signals throughout a residence then use existing broadband connections such as cable or DSL to backhaul the traffic, effectively removing a huge burden from an overburdened cell network.

Carriers want femtos to get traffic off their macro networks, especially as 3G and 4G data usage starts gobbling bandwidth. This is, for now at least, a big reason why most femto trials are going forward in Europe where data usage is heaviest. Secondarily, they'd like to improve in-residence mobile connectivity, a more American and less pressing problem.

Consumers would probably need to be taught that they want both of these things and that little antenna, perhaps disguised as a picture frame, should be part of their home decor.

"I think the jury's out as far as consumer appeal...whether consumers are going to want to buy this in a retail store," Wright said.

Even the most tech-crazy, cell-constricted consumers aren't rushing to Best Buy today. First off the shelves are empty. Second off, if manufacturers somehow found a reason to build products, they'd cost about $200 or more and that's a lot more than Wright thinks the market will bear "which we think is in the $50 range, somewhere between 50 and 100 bucks. The technology is nowhere near mature enough to get to that price point," he said.

So for now Motorola and most other vendors are trialing products, toying with concepts like picture frames and waiting for their customers to throw down a green flag to start the race to market.

"We'll be doing trials throughout the remainder of 2008 and going into 2009. some time in the middle of 2009 the carriers that we're working with will make a decision whether or not they want to commercialize these products and if they do whether they want to have Motorola be one of their suppliers," Wright said. "At that point we would go into a production stage with femto products."