Tuesday, July 01, 2008

An unlicensed femtocell

The market is catching on to the benefits of home zone services, where consumers get mobile services that work better and cost less. For operators, the ability to offload the macro network and increase the performance of mobile services indoors, coupled with the ability to develop location specific home or enterprise services has driven increased interest in this market opportunity.

Typically we talk about the need for home zone services, irrespective of the underlying radio technology (Wi-Fi or femtocell). For consumer and service providers, the benefits are nearly identical.

But an interesting trend has emerged in the press. Recently there have been several references to the ‘unlicensed femtocell’, perhaps known by the more common name of Wi-Fi.

The comparison makes sense. Femtocells have a couple of generic properties. One is a low power radio designed for use in-building CPE. Second is the ability for these devices to be deployed as consumer without operator intervention. Third, they are ‘self organizing’, meaning they determine their environment and adjust the capabilities accordingly. Forth, the term femtocell is actually radio agnostic. ‘Femtocell’ is applied to CDMA, UMTS, EV-DO, GSM, LTE, even WiMAX. While the one thing these have in common is that the frequencies are licensed, why not add 802.11 b/g to the list?

Now before you think this is something I made up, there have been several references of late:

This article in DigiTimes (“Tecom Ships UMA Femtocells”) refers to ‘UMA femtocells’ being shipped to T-Mobile. Clearly not the classic definition, these were in fact Wi-Fi terminal adaptors.

This article in The Register (“Femto Forum Gets Big Ideas”) comments that “In the USA T-Mobile is already deploying 2G femtocells to provide coverage in customers’ homes.” True, but it is an 802.11 b/g femtocell.

This last one is perhaps the most interesting. Ozzie Diaz, Chief Technologies for HP's wireless business, comments on his blog (“Wireless Operators Getting the Runaround”) about the importance of local radios:

One operator who does seem to have a clue on making use of these non-cellular radios in handsets is T-Mobile USA in their Hotspot@Home with unlimited calling while at home connected over their WiFi access point connected back to the T-Mobile core network. In essence a “femtocell” without the pain of the frequency planning or spectrum management. But taking the same advantage of femtocells and using the customers Internet access link at home for “free” backhaul to the core network…FABULOUS model of eliminating a BIG CAPEX problem for themselves.

It just gets you thinking about what a femtocell really is, a tool for making mobile services work better and cost less.

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