Femtocells, small mobile base stations that plug directly into a DSL broadband modem, have been in the spotlight this year with predictions from analysts like Dell'Oro Group, Yankee Group, In-Stat, ABI and Idate all proclaiming that we are almost at a tipping point, with various levels shipments from a few million to sixty million expected by 2014.
The focus on early deployments has been consumers with poor coverage at home, and asking those unlucky customers to pay for better mobile coverage (by having a femtocell in the home). I'm not sure I agree with this approach, but at least it's a tip toe in the water.
The second phase of femtocell deployment will focus on capacity issues. The staggering success of the iPhone and Android devices (and their accompanying app stores) have highlighted that the network cannot cope with the insatiable demand for mobile broadband services (particularly issues like "signaling storm". We more bandwidth, at the same times of days and in similar locations, than the network can offer. Femto cells will be able to provide a targeted delivery mechanism for those of us who want a superior service at home.
A third phase of femtocell deployments will be driven by compelling applications that only work within a femtozone. These maybe be femto-only apps, or additions to popular social media applications like Facebook. Why? Femtos have the quality of offering both presence and geo-localization (better than GPS can indoors) which could breed a whole new application ecosystem, as discussed in this Alcatel-Lucent blog post.
So what does this mean to business users? Firstly, employees using their work mobiles on a work-at-home day will benefit from the call/data session being routed over a broadband network (cheaper, better coverage). But the real promise lies in higher capacity femtocells being deployed within the office.
One of the barriers to femto cells being adopted by businesses has been femto capacity. A typical residential femtocell can support 2-4 simultaneous users, with higher end systems supporting 8 users. This has not been ideal for a large office deployment. Chip developer Picochip has now developed a femtocell that can support 32 channels, ideal for a public hotspot or enterprise environment. With multiple enterprise femtocells deployed within a building, few calls will be required to search out for an external macrocell.
This could be good news to CFO's who pay the company phone bill.
Considering how many people use their mobile as their primary business communications tool, it would be great to offer them better coverage and improved network connectivity, while also reducing this overall communications cost. This can be achieved by routing business mobile network traffic over a company network.
What would make it even more compelling is if femtos were fully-integrated with the office PBX, so that advanced call control features can be extended to the mobile device such as the ability to assign a single number to both fixed and mobile devices.
Picocells already exist for business users, but femtos have a distinct advantage - they are much easier to manage, are plug & play and do not require site planning. Ideal then, if you want to deploy in a diverse branch offices.
Open femtos for public spaces
In a closed environment, the enterprise femtocell will only be available to registered mobiles. All other mobile devices within its footprint still connect to via the macrocell. It is also possible to set up the femtocell with open access so that any user can access it. In a public setting, the femto cell can be a mobile broadband hotspot, delivering high-bandwidth in targeted locations.
Why would an operator offer this? Data offloading is a major issue - operators would like to target heavy users, congregating together (e.g. coffee shop) and relieve the mobile network of their activity. For the shop owner, advertising a femtocell could attract customers knowing that they will have good phone signal to make calls or download apps. And why not Wi-Fi? It's not really competitive issue - some devices have Wi-Fi and users are prepared to sign in to the hotspot. But with a femtocell, users do not need to sign in (its automatic) and you don't need Wi-Fi. Many mobile devices may never have Wi-Fi embedded.<span style=">
I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.