Femtocells find home in business

Operators see business case in promoting indoor base stations to commercial entities, a shift from previous trend of targeting residential areas, says Femto Forum executive.

SINGAPORE--Femtocells are increasingly moving out of homes into commercial areas as well as in emergency scenarios areas to boost cellular connection, said industry players.

In his keynote speech Monday at Femtocells Asia 2011 held here, Simon Saunders, chairman of Femto Forum, said that all of the public installations of femtocells a year ago were specifically residential deployments.

"Today, alongside those residential deployments, a third of [femtocell deployments] are enterprise-targeted," he noted.

Femtocells, added Saunders, have also expanded from the residential environment to other scenarios. He said "femto technology" had been developed for the needs of a home environment with the technology scaled down to fit into the home, is easily operable and can be set up in a "rapid and cost effective deployment". The attributes of the technology have proven to be "equally useful in a wide range of environments", he added.

According to Saunders, the global femtocell industry is growing. Data from the Femto Forum revealed that commercial deployments of femtocells have more than doubled to 21 in 2011, compared with nine since last year's forum, he said. Commitment to femtocells has almost tripled from 12 last year to 35 this year, he added.

At the forum, Baldev Gill, NEC's femtocell solutions business development officer for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA), presented a case study of Norway Networks' femtocell trials targeted at small and midsize businesses. The value proposition of femtocells for such businesses is good mobile cellular connection as "every dropped call is a missed business opportunity", he said.

Apart from businesses, femtocells are also being used in emergency scenarios as well. Jesada Sivaraks, an executive from TOT, a Thai state-owned telecommunications company, described how the telco collaborated with other companies to provide ad-hoc cellular service last November to flood-ravaged areas in southern Thailand using femtocells. Different from traditional fixed-line Internet backhaul, the companies used satellite as a backhaul for the femtocells, allowing the Mobile Vsat Vehicle to roam the affected areas and provide cellular service.

NEC: Femtocells now mainstream
In an interview with ZDNet Asia on the sidelines of the forum, NEC executives Keita Ito, deputy general manager of the femtocell business development office for greater China and Asia-Pacific, and Gill said the technology has gone mainstream. Both pointed to the number of femtocells deployment worldwide as their case for optimism.

Gill attributed the femtocell growth to the change of mindsets. In the past, operators were not sure about the technology but now that it has matured, operators have more confidence in femtocells, he said.

However, there still remains a challenge for operators in promoting femtocells, according to Gill. Operators, he explained, need to find out how best to position the product to users--for example, users in the United States may be willing to pay for better cellular connection in a building, but users in Europe may regard good mobile connection as the operator's responsibility.

He suggested operators bundle femtocells as part of an Internet package and promote the technology as one that can ensure premium quality of service and good coverage for users' mobile phones. Telcos with more assets such as fixed networks will be able to offer a good proposition, he said.

Asked if the NEC executives see Wi-Fi as a challenger to femtocells, Ito said wireless technologies such as marcocell sites, femtocell and Wi-Fi are complimentary services and do not replace one another. He noted that femtocells allow operators to fill in cellular connection gaps which they previously could not.

While Ito and Gill did not see Wi-Fi usurping the function of femtocells, they noted some advantages the base station has over Wi-Fi. Gill said not every phone is Wi-Fi enabled and there are certain operations that can only be accessed through a 3G connection. Ito added that using 3G connection from a nearby femtocell will not drain the battery of a phone as much as it does using Wi-Fi.


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