Blog Post

Here come the FemtoCells

It’s been a long wait, but it seems that Femtocells – miniature cellular base station that sit inside our homes and offices and amplify cellular signals – are making it to the market. Over past few days, an increasing number of companies have started to announce availability of femtocell devices.

2Wire, which makes DSL residential gateways, and is part owned by AT&T, recently announced that it will include femtocell functionality in its devices. The voice calls can be carried over the DSL connections, without needing a WiFi connection.

This makes the technology more acceptable for folks who don’t have WiFi-functionality in their phones. Netgear, recently teamed up with Ubiquisys and will develop a new residential gateway that will have integrated DSL modem, Wi-Fi, VoIP and 3G femtocell technology, and will be available in 2008. NokiaSiemens Networks and Thomson are also working together on similar devices, the two companies announced today. Nokia Siemens will provide the femto cell for Thomson’s DSL gateways.

ABI Research predicts that the femtocell unit shipments for 2008 will increase to a million units from 50,000 in 2007. By 2012 there will be 152 million users of femtocell products on 36 million access points worldwide, they predict.

While those predictions may seem to be too optimistic, one does have to admit that the carriers are going to do their best to push femtocells. Mobile carriers are obviously worried by the impact of WiFi and VoWiFi on their voice revenues. Vodafone, world’s cellular operator has issued an RFP for femtocells, much like France Telecom, the parent company of Orange.

17 Responses to “Here come the FemtoCells”

  1. Google & femtocells

    “Femtocell technology and access point pioneer Ubiquisys Ltd has secured $25 million in a round B funding that included Google and existing backers, bringing the total venture capital raised to date to $37 million.”

    UNSTRUNG has a long piece, discussing the implications and if this is a hint on Google’s ambitions to be a wireless operator.

    I’d love to know what their thinking is – got any ideas…?

    Of course, Ubiquisys are customers of ours (almost everyone doing femtocells is a customer of ours!)

    Cross-posted to the Google thread

  2. Jesse Kopelman

    Om, what I’m saying is that I don’t think carriers love it. The idea of smaller cells for local coverage/capacity improvement is fundamental to the cellular concept and is thus decades old. Yet for all those decades carriers have largely spurned such technology, instead focusing on how to increase in-building penetration and capacity through improvements to existing macrocells (see Rod Nelson for some really laughable public statements in support of this logic-defying approach). What carriers publicly support and what they actually deploy are too different things. Remember 3xRTT? What about beam-forming overlays for increased 2G capacity? What about self-install repeaters? What about Crown Castle’s DVB-H network? Look, it’s good PR for carriers to claim support for some hot new technology, but marketing and engineering are rarely on the same page. The same goes for equipment vendors — they are always ready with some vaporware product that has that hot new tech, but how often do you see it actually go commercial?

  3. As well as the manufacturer announcements (Netgear & Thomson are two of the largest suppliers of access points in the world, so they do understand the market!) it is worth noting the carriers: Vodafone, Orange, Softbank & Sprint have all recently made announcements about their significant plans to deploy femtocells.

    It is worth stressing this: some of the benefits are to users (primarily better coverage), but there is a very clear econmomic case for the operators (reduced capex, reduced opex, increased service revenue, lower churn etc).

    There is obviously one respect where there is some truth to Jesse’s point – never believe anything till it has already happened.

    But technology is usually more fun (and more lucrative) if one looks ahead a little. And on that basis, a lot of the smart money (carriers, maunfacturers and VCs) is ewxpecting this technology to pay off.

    Rupert Baines, picoChip

  4. Jesse

    i think the big reason carriers seem to love it – because it sits in their gateway so they still have a lot of control over the network and less firewall issues etc. THat would be logical.

    However, as you rightfully noted – there is a big gap between announcements and reality, but lets keep watching and see what happens to this market.

  5. Anil Raj

    The idea of moving radio capacity from outdoor cells to small indoor cells is fundamentally sound. This frees up scarce spectrum resources etc. However, the largest challenge is provisioning femtocells: Unlike WiFi APs which are sort of plug-n-play, a 3G femtocell is much more tightly integrated into the host network’s base station controllers etc. and will require a complex “getting started” sequence which will be vendor specific.

  6. actually, ABI’s numbers are even more absurd that what you have in your article… they claim 36 million sold in 2012, 70 million deployed by 2012.

  7. Jesse Kopelman

    Om, despite all the recent press, I still refuse to believe in femtocells until they are actually being offered by carriers. Companies talk up products all the time that never actually see the light of day. The idea of femtocells is not new. The issues remain the same: The device will only work with a particular carrier, so it better be cheap enough to be easily subsidized. Can the ultra-controlling likes of AT&T and Verizon actually trust mere customers to not dick around with a device that could screw up the greater network? If this is using broadband as backhaul, how big a pain in the ass will it be to configure around firewalls? What happens to services like this and UMA if cablecos decide to start blocking/deprioritizing it? Until proven otherwise, this one sits alongside cell on blimp.

  8. Jesse Kopelman

    Shawn, femtocell support for e911 is very easy. The range of a femtocell is only about 100 feet and as such we can just assume that all users have the same location as the femtocell itself. Basically, this is the same as landline e911.

  9. I wonder how e911 will be affected by the use of femtocells. From what I understand e911 for wireless works by connecting with a tower. If I make a 911 call will my femtocell send along my location or am I in the same or worse boat as voip customers.

  10. David, the femtocells are a smaller version of the regular cellular base stations. Of course there are a ton of technical challanges relating to frequency planning, interference, security etc. in addition to the business case issues…

  11. I’m a little lost on exactly how this technology works? Does it amplify the signal or does it transfer over mediums (e.g. DSL) without any modification? If the first, then is it going to be like those great ::sarcasm:: booster devices for wireless signals?