Femtocells are the Future

Femtocells are the Future

By Eric Griffith

April 24, 2007

Are you ready to help the mobile carriers extend their network into your home?

Femtocells — A.K.A. “access point/mini/home base stations” — are not really in use today. However, they have the potential to become a major addition to the 3G/cellular carriers’ arsenal in the future by becoming an addition to your home network. For those looking to ditch their landlines but lacking good coverage in their living room, it might make all the difference. And it certainly makes all the difference to the carriers.

For example, picoChip and Global Wireless Technologies (GWT) said today they’ve collaborated on reference designs for femtocells and smaller picocells supporting both CDMA2000 and EV-DO Rev. A, all upgradeable to faster versions and other tech (like WCDMA/HSDPA) as they become available.

Sprint Nextel apparently plans to offer WiMax femtocells to extend its burgeoning WiMax network indoors, and has put out an request for proposal (RFP) to vendors to design it, according to Unstrung.

ABI Research recently said that femtocells would make up 86% of the market worldwide in just four years — 102 million voice users on 32 million femtocells — based just on the number of RFPs taking place in the industry. ABI expects to see some major standardization of femtocells — 3GPP is already considering some femtocell extensions of current standards.

One company you might not expect to be heavy into the femtocell work is Kineto Wireless, which to date has made its mark pushing its Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA) — itself a 3GPP standard now — which is all about supporting dual-mode handsets, letting users roam from a cellular network to a Wi-Fi network and back again. Except it’s not just about that.

“Mobile operators can use it for dual-mode handsets — or any device in the home, in this case a femtocell,” says Steve Shaw, marketing director for Kineto. “UMA is used to link back to the controller to provide cost-effective backhaul.” Shaw even wrote a paper about it for Basestation e-Newsletter.

Kineto announced today that its work with U.K.-based Ubiquisys, maker of the ZoneGate 3G femtocell system, has led to successful tests of ZoneGates back to the Kineto UMA controller. They’ve been working on it since September 2006.

Shaw stresses that what they’ve done with Ubiquisys is not dual-band-related — it’s about using UMA to power a femtocell at home that a handset will turn to before it looks for the signal from a tower in the distance.

Kineto has also been working with picoChip since December 2006 on a similar project. Last month, NEC began selling Kineto’s UMA controller to run its own femtocells.

“This is really driven by operator demand,” says Shaw. “They’re saying, ‘Femtocells are great, but I need a good technology to integrate tens of thousands in the network.'” He believes the company with the most public plans for femtocell deployment is O2 in the U.K.

That said, Shaw also admits that femtocells “don’t really exist yet — we have some prototypes. There will probably be trials late this year or early next.” He doesn’t think consumers will be the ones to buy the femtocells, as they’ll balk at paying to extend the coverage for their provider. But getting a unit for free, subsidized by the carrier, perhaps with a special voice package, would make all the difference. The fact that it is likely to be using licensed spectrum (unlike Wi-Fi) will also have an impact.

“One reason operators like UMA is that it’s relatively open,” says Shaw. “So anyone can make femtocells, put UMA in, and link back to a UMA controller.” Kineto isn’t alone in making the controllers — they’re also out there from Alcatel, Nokia, Motorola and others — though Kineto does supply the UMA tech to some of them.

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