Femtocells gather steam after interoperability pact

Members of industry association the Femto Forum have agreed a single common approach for integrating femtocells into mobile networks via broadband

Femtocells — mobile base stations which piggyback off DSL to boost mobile reception indoors — could have inched a little closer to the consumer's living room.

At least that's the hope of the Femto Forum, an industry association of operators, telecoms hardware and software vendors, content providers and start-ups, working to smooth the path for development and adoption of the nascent technology. The Forum said its members have agreed a single common approach for integrating femtocells into mobile networks via broadband.

Agreeing principles for interoperability between femtocell access points and femto gateways is crucial for the longer term success of the technology, according to the Forum, which said it is collaborating with mobile operator body the GSM Association and broadband body the DSL Forum to ensure femtocells evolve in line with both their needs.

The Forum said it has also been accepted as a "market representation partner" with mobile industry standards bodies 3GPP and 3GPP2, positioning it to advise on both CDMA and GSM cellular standards. It has also boosted its tally of members, adding the likes of AT&T, China Telecom, Nortel, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile.

Industry-wide collaboration is vital to femtocells succeeding in the marketplace, Forum chairman Simon Saunders added.

Femtocells are currently only being deployed in limited trials, but mobile operators have dreams of much larger deployments that would help support increased use of rich, multimedia 3G services indoors while avoiding the expense of ramping up 3G network infrastructure.

But mobile operators are not the only companies interested in femtocells. On Wednesday, US mobile IP company Qualcomm announced it is making an undisclosed investment in femtocell maker ip.access, joining the likes of Cisco, Intel Capital and Motorola Ventures.

Frederic Rombaut, head of Qualcomm Ventures Europe, said in a statement that 3G femtocells will play "a very important role in future mobile network architecture" and enhancing the delivery of 3G services to mobile users.

Analysts suggest femtocells could specifically help deliver mobile TV services. A new Analysys Mason report, entitled Critical ingredients of mobile TV: femtocells and side loading, claims femtocells could have a significant role to play as a high proportion of mobile TV and video content is consumed indoors. As well as delivering high-quality signals, indoor wireless systems could help to preserve 3G capacity, the report claims.

Mobile TV is an area close to Qualcomm's heart: its big-in-the-US MediaFLO data-broadcasting technology is a rival to current European favourite DVB-H. And, since femtocells must operate in licensed spectrum, the investment may shed further light on Qualcomm's recent decision to stump up £8m for L-Band spectrum in the UK.

Writing on his blog, Disruptive Analysis analyst Dean Bubley speculated: "I wonder what you could do if you put a MediaFLO chip into a femtocell... either for receiving signals to create the equivalent of a parallel digital terrestrial network, or for sending them at lower power to distribute TV around a house, a bit like Ruckus does with Wi-Fi."

In related femtocell news, chip company picoChip has announced it has lined up the first LTE (long-term evolution) femtocell and picocell designs. The company said these will enable customers to upgrade to 4G from 2009 when product launches are planned.