Monday, July 16, 2007

The Femtocell Conference

Avren, a boutique conference firm, hit a home run July 3-5 with the industry’s first femtocell event. Adding to the allure was the inaugural meeting of the new Femto Forum which resulted in a staggering 240 attendees all crammed into a hotel ball room at Heathrow to hear about femtocells.

I wanted to offer a couple of thoughts that we picked up from the event:

- The operators have consolidated around a 'RAN gateway' approach.

Early on there was talk of potentially using Iu-b or even SIP, but those have been largely dismissed by the operators. All major operators and vendors (NSN, Alcalu, Motorola, NEC, Ericsson) have proposed a RAN gateway (like a UNC) solution that provides an Iu connection to the mobile core.

This approach is low impact to the core and ensures full service transparency (all GSM/3G services are delivered over the femtocell), the same reasons why UMA defined a RAN gateway approach 2+ years ago. What's interesting is that rather than rallying around UMA, vendors are each defining their own proprietary approaches. Motorola and NEC are following the UMA path.

- Operators are *insisting* on an open interface

This makes sense. They want a robust, competitive market for femtocells, with many suppliers delivering products that meet a single, standardized interface. This achieves the economies of scale for femto manufacturers to drive costs down. Of course, UMA is already an open/published specification. NSN took the unusual step of stating they will publish their ‘vendor specific’ protocol for other femto vendors to build too. I’m sure the other vendors (ip.Access, Ericsson, Alcalu, NEC, Motorola, ...) can’t wait to build a femto that conforms to the Nokia/Siemens specification (or vice versa).

- The hype is high, but reality is starting to set in.

It was clear from the tone of the operators that femtocells are an exciting opportunity. But all realize there is a LOT of work to be done before the promise/hype meets up with the shelves of consumer electronics stores.

- A word on UMA

In all of this, UMA continues to be the only published, industry recognized standard for femtocell backhaul. The minor work to extend the current UMA specification to support Iu was kicked off in Oct 06 at the 3GPP.

Through its work with Dual-Mode Handsets, UMA already has the ability to integrate millions of devices into the mobile core, has the access control mechanisms to support consumer grade products, and a robust handover procedure. These capabilities are yet to be defined by the vendors scrambling to come up with their own RAN gateway protocols. UMA is the standardized RAN gateway approach.

Two other things UMA has going for it versus these ‘vendor specific’ approaches. One is that UMA supports dual-mode handset services as well as femtocells. While an operator may not be interested in a DMH service today, the future protection offered by a UMA infrastructure, with no price premium (UNCs are already deployed in volume around the world for DMH), is very compelling.

Second is that UMA supports 2G femtocells as well as 3G femtocells. If an operator is going to deploy a ‘combo’ AP, or is interested in 2G femtos, UMA is the only choice.

All in all, UMA is really proving why it is known as ‘GAN’, it is a generic access network technology, easily adaptable to new applications.

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