Cell, cell, sell - femtocell technology at Mobile World Congress

It’s not just a show about handsets. If you dig a little deeper at Mobile World Congress, there is some really interesting new technology that will have a dramatic impact on mobile broadband and the way we use our devices.

First among these is the new network. Mobile data demand is exploding at a considerable rate, too quickly for mobile operators to keep pace. In response, many have introduced bandwidth usage caps for smartphone users in an effort to ease network congestion.***

As well as 4G (otherwise known as LTE) and new spectrum bands, operators are looking at different way to construct their networks.

The current mobile network features large cells, and because of the way mobile technology works, are very inefficient at providing data to people towards the edge of the cell. Femtocells and metrocells (built using the same principle as a femtocells) are much more efficient at providing demand where it is needed. You get less dead areas, and the power required to deliver mobile broadband is significantly reduced.  Vendors such as IP Access, Cisco, Alcatel-Lucent, Ubiquisys, NEC, Nokia-Siemens Networks and many more were very keen to talk up the role of small cells in 3G and 4G mobile networks.

Different business models

At a briefing with the Femto Forum, chairman Simon Saunders told me that around the world there are now 19 commercially-available femtocell  services, with a further 34 planned. Informa, meanwhile, estimates that there are currently 1.7 million femtocells in operation compared to 2.2. million macro cells.

While the residential market as the first to take off, each operator now seems to have its own ambitions for femtos.

To date, 10 of the commercial femtocell services are aimed at residential, six are enterprise, one is rural and two  are urban. The rural project is particularly interesting: Japanese mobile operator Softbank is using femtocells, backhauled over a satellite connection, to bring mobile broadband to remote islands.

One operator is looking to deploy femtocells in Afghanistan, while a number of Tier 1 operators – who already have femtocells in operation– are considering them as much than a capacity in-fill for 3G networks. They are looking to femtocell technology to be in the first wave of rollout of 4G networks.

Operators that have femtos deployed so far include Vodafone, Verizon, AT&T, SFR, NTT DoCoMo, China Unicom, Movistar, KDDI, Softbank, Singtel Optus. One new player, Public Wireless, wants to aggregate femtocell access and provide a wholesale service to operators.

“The debate about Wi-Fi-vs-femto is dying down. People are realizing that is it a complementary technology. In fact, we are looking at how femtos and Wi-Fi can work together more cooperatively,” said Femto Forum's Simon Saunders.

Cells of all sizes

Shown at MWC was everything from small to large femtocells. OEMs are looking forward to new chips from vendor Picochip which as small enough to allow a femtocell to be constructed on a USB stick. This would mean you can plug your 4 channel femtocell into any existing router, rather than needing another box, power supply and network card.

Metrocells were also hot, featured by Alcatel-Lucent and IP Access among others. These are femtocells that can be located on lamp-posts, buildings or indoors, to bring targeted coverage and capacity on an open access basis.  They are obviously larger than a residential femtocell but considerably smaller and less energy intensive than a macro cell.

Can Wi-Fi and femto co-exist? Cisco certainly thinks so as it is planning to combine both in a single box for hotspot service providers.

There were also quite a few enterprise femtocells on show, which I will look at in more detail in a later post. So far, enterprise femtocells have not seen a great deal of deployment in large because of integration problems with existing IP-PBX infrastructure.

Macro cell in a box

But perhaps the most intriguing small cell on show was from Alcatel Lucent. The LightRadio Cube is a base station in the palm of your hand. Around the size of a Rubik’s Cube, the Light Radio Cube combines antennae, digital signal processor and software-define radio. When it launches commercially it will support all mobile standards (2G, 3G, 4G and MIMO) on a single chip. And it is completely modular. It can be a residential femtocell, or combined with another, could be a metro cell providing coverage to a shopping mall or a remote village. And stacked together, maybe 20 at a time, it would replace a macro cell.  Why is this interesting? Look at this macro cell http://www.mobilecomms-technology.com/projects/gprs_georgia/gprs_georgia2.html which must connect to a mast like this http://www.flickr.com/photos/osde-info/562030997/, and now look at the Light Radio Cube: http://www.slashgear.com/alcatel-lucent-lightradio-promises-tiny-2g3g4g-cell-base-stations-07131262/ It needs no mast and nor is it the size of a refrigerator. Alcatel-Lucent claims that a mobile network with this technology will use half the energy of a network with traditional base stations, and can be deployed without site planning.

So whether its femtos at home or in the office, metrocells in the street and in the mall, and small cells replacing large ones on masts, operators now have many more tools in the bag. The result for us, as end-users, should be better quality mobile broadband without those pesky network holes.


*** As an aside, Analysys Mason http://www.analysysmason.com/About-Us/News/Insight/The-mobile-taginlineimportdata-explosion-myths-and-reality/ argues that mobile data growth is nowhere near as much as predicted by pundits. This is partly because of a slowdown in subscribers using mobile broadband as a substitute for fixed broadband, and because most smartphone users are choosing to connect via Wi-Fi at home. A well argued point, but I would like to see some evidence of this as most of the mobile operators I talk to, and I do talk to quite a few, admit that they have been completely unprepared for the impact the iPhone and Android has had on their networks, in part because of the increase in signaling traffic. This causes considerable congestion and drives subscribers to look for alternative service providers.  Operators are looking to LTE, indoor cells and news spectrum to provide much needed juice.


Stewart Baines
Stewart Baines

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.