I will be getting the hardware for my trial femtocell service from local telco StarHub tomorrow. This close to Christmas, unfortunately, means that I won’t be able to get my first hands-on impressions out on TechRepublic before the holidays.

However, I will use this time to first introduce femtocell and then follow up with a more detailed appraisal at the beginning of January.

What is femtocell?

A femtocell is a small cellular base station that connects to a mobile service provider’s network via a broadband connection. The actual number of mobile phones that can be supported per femtocell varies, but general consensus seems to peg it at between two to five phones — at least for the initial generation of equipment.

In a nutshell, a femtocell is a miniature version of the celco’s cellular base station that resides within your office or residence. Some see it as another way to deliver on the benefits of fixed mobile convergence without having to invest in dual-mode handsets or be mired with potential difficulties of getting handsets to work over disparate Wi-Fi access points.

Personally, I am just looking forward to more reliable mobile reception, which can get a little flaky at times in the high-rise apartment where I live.

How does femtocell work?

As I mentioned earlier, femtocell operates like a mini-cellular base station. When a registered mobile device is within the proximity of the femtocell, the handset will switch over transparently to the femtocell network. While connected to the femtocell, users can continue to use the mobile handset for all their usual voice and mobile data services, including sending text messages.

The only difference is that the traffic will be passed along the connected broadband network to the Telco’s mobile network infrastructure. As such, a femtocell will obviously not work if the Internet connectivity is down.

What is the value proposition of femtocell?

There are certainly a number of value propositions to using femtocell, be it within the confines of a city or in a more rural setting. Within a city, it would not be unusual to encounter parts of a building or office with poor or erratic reception. The presence of a femtocell unit would certainly reduce or eradicate these wireless “dead spots.” Rural areas that are too sparsely populated for base stations to be economical would certainly benefit from the presence of femtocells as well.

In an organization where I worked previously, we wanted to equip the delivery staff with handhelds linked to backend ERP servers via GPRS. Unfortunately, we realized that a big portion of the office was a cellular dead zone, and attempts by the telco to add in repeaters or reposition the local base station proved to be in vain. In such a scenario, the presence of a few femtocell base stations would certainly have come in handy.

Potential problems with femtocell

Some potential challenges that might hinder the success of femtocell deployments would be interference from other femtocell units or base stations. In addition, evidence ironically seems to suggest slightly higher battery consumption from mobile devices when connected to a femtocell, likely due to mobile devices increasing their transmit power as they detect the slightly weaker signals from the femtocell transmitters.

Other challenges come in the form of access controls issues — I certainly won’t want my neighbor’s phone using my Internet connection! Fortunately, StarHub addressed this issue by allowing only a whitelist of mobile numbers that the femtocell unit will accept.

According to Anil Nihalani, Head of Mobile and Communications, femtocell technology is a nascent technology where the standards are still evolving, though it is a fast-developing one, with new upgrades and functionalities. It is clear that the company has high hopes for the potential of femtocell.

In conclusion

One thing is for certain: femtocell is very new technology. When StarHub rolled out 3G femtocell services in November, it became the first to do so on a commercial, nation-wide level. Indeed, the general expectation is that 2009 will see more commercial launches around the world, though many networks are already involved in limited trials this year.

I’ll reserve the rest of my thoughts until I have used femtocell for a couple of weeks. In the meantime, do you see yourself benefiting from femtocell?