Networking

Cheat Sheet: Femtocell

One day, we'll all have our own base station?

Femtocell. I'll avoid the Austin Powers gags.
Thanks.

Tell me, what does it mean?
A femtocell is a small cellular base station - some might say picocell - that will connect to broadband connections in homes or offices.

Why?
In short, to bring better mobile coverage at the edge of cellular networks.

But my mobile works just fine in my house, even down the end of my garden...
It might do for you but for some that isn't the case. And when it comes to 3G, operators want to make sure everyone can get it.

So it's for people out in the sticks?
I wouldn't get hung up on those that are remote - it could be that in the middle of a dense building 3G doesn't penetrate an office's walls. And that doesn't please operators, especially if they've spent billions on 3G licences and infrastructure.

So what would I get in my house, a base station? I can see certain tabloids up in arms about that.
Quite. And it's understandable the communications industry doesn't want to talk about home base stations. What's now femtocell was originally called Access Point Base Station, and if you think about an access point for something like wi-fi, expect a similar device.

Why is there momentum behind this now?
For one thing, it's a way for mobile operators to handle backhaul. Think about it - calls would go from your handset, to the femtocell, down your broadband connection, back onto the cellular network. Beats having to set up lots more base stations!

Clever. But what's in it for me, besides better coverage?
If better coverage isn't enough incentive for you, you'd imagine operators would dangle some other carrots in front of you.

Such as?
How about cheaper calls, if you're on your home femtocell? Or some other discount? Operators should give some loving back to any subscriber who signs up.

Stop editorialising.
Sorry.

How many people will do this?
Figures from ABI Research last year forecast that by 2011 there will be 102 million users of femtocell products on 32 million access points worldwide. But that figure can be higher or lower, depending on who you ask.

Who's doing it first?
Well there aren't exactly hundreds of operators lining up to talk about this yet. Companies such as O2 are open about various picocell trials they're working on but so far the clearest picture is emerging in the US. Sprint Airwave is being rolled out in the Denver and Indianapolis areas, with Nashville coming soon, backed by equipment from Samsung. Then rival T-Mobile has something similar on offer, though it uses UMA technology, so we're talking about dual-mode handsets there, and then big boy AT&T has its plans too.

What are the pitfalls?
For operators? Well, this could be why we're not hearing too much hype yet. I can't be exhaustive here but there are issues around interference, security (cellular networks are generally pretty secure, home internet connections not so), roaming from one femtocell to another (on purpose or accidentally), billing (are femtocell calls free?) and quality of service.

Just one or two teething problems, then...
And we can also return to your first question - what it's called. There is a danger that if people start hearing about "home base stations" there will be a backlash, before progress is even made. Most of the names for this technology used to include the expression 'base station'.

Just as well someone invented 'femtocell'.
Yes, funny that.

Where do I go for more info?
Well it just so happens that this year the Femto Forum was founded as the industry body to give you the official line. See: http://www.femtoforum.org/. But expect to hear the phrase more and more.

For more on femtocells, check out the video cheat sheet here…

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