Networking

Femtocells yes, Fixed Mobile Convergence no


I have a great deal of respect for the Chinese and their ability to comprehend the natural world, especially their concept of Yin and Yang. I mention this as I use that very unique concept when I research many of the mutually correlated opposites that appear in today’s cutting edge technology. I suspect that sounds inane to most, but it is not hard to come up with several debatable examples. Consider Betamax versus VHS. OK that maybe too ancient for many readers, how about HD DVD versus Blu-ray? That is obviously a now and a very happening debate. Being a wireless junkie, I am more interested in one other antithesis that is fuming right now, which is the antagonistic struggle between Fixed Mobile Convergence (FMC) and Femtocell technology.

FMC and Femtocell defined

Both FMC and Femtocell technologies are primarily focused on providing adequate mobile phone service in environmental circumstances that are less than optimal for the existing cellular infrastructure. FMC is basically a dual-mode phone that uses Wi-Fi based networks for interior phone connectivity as well as the normal cellular technology to provide ubiquitous connectivity regardless of the physical location.

Femtocell technology offers the same results, but does not require a phone with two different wireless technologies. Femtocell technology uses cellular (3G) base stations which are connected to the Internet located at building interior locations that are associated with poor cellular reception. The 3G phone then transitions between Femtocells and the telco’s cellular infrastructure depending on which one provides more optimal RF signal conditions.

Which one is better?

Almost six months ago, I developed a blog series about FMC technology and Femtocell technology, along with the advantages of both approaches. It appears that the old proverb of “simple is better” is at work once again. Femtocells have a decided advantage over FMC networks in this regard. Some of the more distinct advantages are:

Most businesses and homes already have 3G mobile phones and an IP broadband connection in place. No real effort has to be expended to get a Femtocell up and running, just plug it in.

One area of controversy that Femtocell backers cite as an advantage is the use of licensed spectrum which is less prone to uncontrolled interference when compared to the ISM and Wi-Fi bands which are not licensed.

Users require seamless roaming and that is not an issue using Femtocells.

Do we have a winner?

It appears that my hesitation to pick which technology would ultimately win was also shared by many people who I would consider a great deal more knowledgeable on the subject than myself. That apprehension seems to have subsided as a definite winner appears to be surfacing. More and more developers are bringing Femtocell equipment to market and influential telco’s that initially picked FMC as the technology of choice are now reneging on their original commitments.

British Telecom (BT) in 2005 had beat their drums very loudly proclaiming that FMC will be the obvious choice generating billions of British pounds for BT. Just this past week and apparently a definitive “oops”, BT quietly dropped their Fusion FMC program completely. BT admits that customers do not like the more complicated Wi-Fi infrastructure needed and the FMC phones with their shorter battery life. An article from the Techdirt website goes into several of the interesting reasons why FMC is of  little interest to consumers.

A very tell-tale sign that the Yin approach is being chosen over the Yang approach is when equipment developers pick a technology and stake finances on the fact that it is the right approach and will sell. Several notable wireless equipment developers such as Radioframe Networks, Ubiquisys, Airvana, and just recently NetGear have or will have Femtocell devices on the market. Netgear has an especially innovative device that they intend to premier at the Mobile World Congress trade show. The Femtocell Voice Gateway (DVG834GH) is a multi-purpose device advertising an integrated ADSL2+ modem, router, 10/100 wired LAN switch, 802.11g wireless access point, Voice over-IP (VoIP), SPI double firewall, and 3G Femtocell. Well, there you go, one device fulfills all of the typical requirements demanded by residential or SOHO users.

Final thoughts

As usual it will take the test of time to see which technology finally wins. What makes this even more interesting is that other active Yin and Yang struggles will have a significant bearing on which technological approach is the ultimate winner. The most important being the ongoing battle between licensed telcos touting 3G/4G and the Wi-Fi/WiMAX supporters. It is easy to see how the Femtocell versus FMC mirrors that conflict. I personally would like to see a mind-melding process that merges the individual technologies creating the ultimate voice and data network.

About

Information is my field...Writing is my passion...Coupling the two is my mission.

8 comments
mdhealy
mdhealy

I perused the Sprint website on their femtocell, and buried in the fine print is a possible showstopper for many users: in order to comply with Federal 911 mandates, and also to ensure that the femtocell's clock is accurate, the box contains a GPS receiver. If it cannot get sufficient satellite signal, an external GPS antenna will be required. Places with poor cellphone reception also frequently have poor GPS reception!

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

That is very interesting, could you please publish that link? I would very much like to study that information.

mdhealy
mdhealy

Here is the manual for the Sprint device: http://airave.sprint.com/airaveUserGuide.pdf On page 26 it says "In very rare cases, you may find that because of its current location, the base station?s internal GPS antenna may not be able to properly receive and maintain an active GPS signal. If the GPS signal is not detected, as indicated by the LED, connect the included external GPS antenna. Without a valid GPS signal, the base station cannot function properly, and calls will be redirected to the nearest cell tower." But unless it's a LOT more sensitive than every handheld GPS I've used, this is gonna be an issue for more users than is implied by the wording of Sprint's manual!

mdhealy
mdhealy

I've got a Sprint cellphone myself, and have been considering ways to improve indoor reception: right now to use it from inside my residence I must stand in certain spots (or, when the weather is nice, go out to the Big Room). Their VOIP box isn't yet available in my market, but the news reports sounded very interesting so I poked around their website. A possible alternative is to get one of the cellphone repeaters made by several companies. I had been thinking the VOIP box might be simpler to install, but if the Sprint box would need an external GPS antenna then where's the net gain versus a repeater with an external antenna for the cell signal? Either way it looks like I'm gonna have to run some kind of antenna cable.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

I am a bit busy right now, but will read the op manual this weekend. I really appreciate you taking the time to publish the link and bring this information to my attention.

brijesh_deo
brijesh_deo

i have worked on projects where UMA technology is being used in Countries like Denmark (Telia Sonera), Italy (Telecom Italia), Poland, Spain (France telecom/Orange). They have been using the wifi infrastructure. Now if they decide to switch to Femtocell technology, the customers will have to make changes to their system. Technology changes are at times a nuisance for customers and always mmoney making tool for businesses.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

On those installs that you mentioned are the customers using phones that are Wi-Fi enabled? If so, are the phones using VoIP over the internal Wi-Fi network? If not, adding Femtocell technology will not affect the existing Wi-Fi infrastructure and actually maybe a more cost effective method to get improved in-building signal quality. Especially if 3G phones are already in use.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

I would be interested to learn which technology makes the most sense and if there have been any complications during and after the installation.

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