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Summary:

Picochip has built a chip that can support far more mobile users on a femtocell, and help carriers handle the problem of chatty phones that overwhelm networks with movement notifications, push email, Twitter, etc. Maybe it will be just what femtocells need to finally take off.

Picochip this week said it has built a chip that can support far more mobile users on a femtocell and can also help carriers handle the problem of chatty phones that overwhelm networks with notifications that they’re moving from one tower to another, as well as push email, Twitter and other application requests. The resulting femtocell could support up to 60 users in dedicated conversation or web browsing, as well as up to 400 mobile phones engaged in general network chatter. This takes femtocells out of the home, where the business case was always weak, and into public spaces and businesses that could actually afford to pay for the devices and better cell phone coverage. Maybe it will be just what the femtocell market needs to finally take off.

My colleagues (GigaOM Pro sub req’d) and I have both been skeptical about the femtocell opportunity because the mini base stations, designed to improve cell coverage in homes using a consumer’s wired web connection as backhaul, cost too much and required the user to pay a fee each month. Basically, femtocells require users to pay more money to offset a crappy network experience — something many are reluctant to do. However, if Picochip’s beefed-up chips can help femtocells support more users, they could become an attractive solution for larger campuses, and perhaps public places such as Times Square or at a train station. They might also help improve the overall network for operators by taking signaling traffic off congested towers in urban areas.

Chetan Sharma, a wireless analyst, issued a report this week noting that network congestion is generally caused by two big issues: (1) signaling traffic caused by smartphones and superphones and (2) peak data traffic caused by data cards and embedded laptops. He writes that signaling traffic is growing faster than raw data traffic because smartphones are not very efficient with applications. As proof, he points out that smartphone signaling traffic is more than eight times data card signaling traffic, even though smartphones are only a small segment of the overall base of devices on the network. Already, signaling consumes more than 50 percent of the available network resources — a worry as smartphones increase and an opportunity for femtocells.

So while I am still skeptical about femtocells, it’s possible that they may have a larger role to play in cellular networks if they’re made robust enough to support more people, or if carriers find value taking some of the burden of signaling traffic off of their networks. Such a device would certainly help AT&T with its congested network.

Related GigaOM Pro Research:

By Stacey Higginbotham

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  1. Some more clarity would be welcome.
    1) “been skeptical about the femtocell opportunity because the mini base stations, designed to improve cell coverage in homes using a consumer’s wired web connection as backhaul, cost too much and required the user to pay a fee each month.”

    This is strictly not true, because several femtocell providers like ATT do NOT require you to pay a fee each month. In any case, that is purely a business decision, not something intrinsic to femtos. The article is unclear.

    2) “Already, signaling consumes more than 50 percent of the available network resources”
    What resources specifically? CPU, Memory? Bandwidth?

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  2. By signaling traffic do you think Chetan is referring M2M traffic?

    Since signaling traffic seems to be consumes precious bandwidth are there any efforts underway that will segment the traffic. All signaling traffic on one subnet and all other mobile user/app data traffic on the other subnet?

    In reference to AT&T and its congestion issues — do you think that HSPA+ or LTE may provide relief? Or do you think that mobile providers need to better manage their networks? And removing “unlimited data plans” is not the answer. Smartphone’s are placing greater demands on the ecosystem — Cisco’s VNI states that traffic is expected to grow 50 times what it is today by 2014.

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  3. [...] …somewhat incredibly, femto sceptic Stacey Higginbotham at GigaOM thinks this might be “just what the femtocell market needs to finally take off”(!) [...]

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  4. I’m curious about a difference btw Picochip’s PR and your notes. Picochip’s PR says 24 users are supported simultaneously, but you say 60 above ? Is there a reason for the difference ? A definition of “web browsing” state ?

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    1. That came from an interview with Rupert Baines, VP of marketing with picoChip. I will check with picoChip to get to the bottom of the discrepancy.

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  5. ramon – the signalling challange issue in this context has nothing to do with m2m.

    vijay – the issue does impact cpu and memory. the basic issue is that in a cellular network, the network needs to provide some arbitration and allocate resources (slots/bandwidth/spectrum) before a byte of data can be transmitted. smartphones can have chatty applications, and this can cause a lot of traffic, kind of a lot of call attempts…now the standards are addressing this and have come up with some optimized states, which can provide some sort of tradeoff between battery life, network resources, and traffic. there are some interesting blogs on this by martin sauter…

    ajay

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  6. [...] This is the same technology picoChip announced for its PC3x3 femto chips last week (which got GigaOM’s Stacey Higginbotham so excited).  David Chambers gives a good explanation [...]

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  7. [...] could help. Then earlier this month I wrote about new silicon from picoChip that might help femotcells break out as a business opportunity. I still wonder if Wi-Fi could provide a similar service for a lower cost to both consumers and [...]

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  8. [...] GigaOM – Picochip Gives Femtocells a New Lease on Life [...]

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  9. [...] base stations known as femtocells anywhere –bringing them out of the home environment and into public areas like parking garages surrounding a busy shopping area or on an enterprise campus. Femtocells help [...]

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