In the past few weeks I have hearing about the challenges faced in deployment of femtocells. Getting the right handset for femtocells is the key for the success of the femtocells.
I must say that the hype surrounding the mass deployment of femtocells has been doused with cold water by a new study into the need for handset vendors to quickly transform their devices to support the technology. According to the report, published by Research & Markets (R&M), the femtocell industry is basing its optimism on the notion that subscribers will use their cell phones differently when in range of femtocells. There will be different applications and behavioral patterns when people are at home, perhaps content backups, podcasts or even advertiser sponsored TV programming. The mobile phone may need to be linked to the TV, PC, HiFi or other items of domestic technology, claims R&M.
I have seen some reports which suggest that although the currently available handsets will work with femtocells they are not optimised to support this new 'in home' activity. The question which remains in my mind is that how the handset will determine the femtocells as compared to any other stronger not femtocell available. The phone needs to be aware of the femtocell, ideally both in the radio and the application platform. I firmly believe that we will need new architecture for the handsets to solve the above problem. But changing how the handset industry approaches this challenge could take 2-3 years given that it takes this amount of time to implement new handset architecture, and around the same time before new cell phone technology reaches a broad range of devices. The handset industry also needs to be aware that where we will ne in terms wireless technology in 2-3 years time. We might be entering in the era of LTE by this time.
- In dense deployments of femtocells, handsets can spend too much time and power attempting to connect at locations that are not their own "home zone."
- The new 3GPP Release 8 specifications contain various modifications to enable handsets to work better with femtocells, but the first R8-compliant phones will likely be shipped at the end of 2010.
- The usage of handsets on femtocells may identify unexpected side-effects, relating to faster/cheaper data connections. This may impact elements of design such as memory allocation and power management.
- Various suggestions have been made for ‘femto-zone' services--but there is no standardised way for handset applications to know they are attached to a femtocell.
By looking at the above issues it may not sound very well in favour of femtocell deployment and commercialisation. However operators are always looking for new means and ideas for the generation of new revenue streams. Femtocell is definitely on of those new means and a possible opportunity for the operators to generate more revenue. Revenue can be generated by the operators from advertisers and other third parties by enabling the provision of 'at home' services via femtocells.
Research and Market claimed that there could be a demand for at least 48 million femto-aware handsets to be sold to femtocell owners in 2013. However, with more optimistic forecasts, and especially if shared femtocell models become popular, there could potentially be a demand for up to 300 million femto-aware handsets per year in 2013.
Although the above figures look very encouraging, femtocell industry is still very cautious in terms of their approach towards massive investment. Femtocell industry is currently focusing on the short term, getting initial trials in place, developing standards, and securing commitments for early commercial deployment. These initial efforts are very critical for the femtocell industry so that they can validate the market, raise the profile of the femtocells concept. If the industry can do that then it will stimulate finance and investment in the femtocells.
One of the propositions by central marketing is that femtocells can work with normal 3G handsets. If this is true then subscriber can get the service from femtocells without needing to go for expensive upgrades to their existing phones.
But while focus is good and the industry does not want unnecessary distractions there is a risk of medium term failure if certain future problems are not addressed early enough, even if this muddies the waters of the short term marketing message. Already, femtocells proponents are talking up mass market business models that go beyond simple indoor coverage and macro-network offload. They are talking about 10's of millions of subscribers, and new "in-home" services for users, that exploit fast and cheap local mobile connectivity.
It is at that stage that the issue of right handsets for the femtocells industry comes into picture once again. The handset innovations become even more important for important for the industry. As I have mentioned above, the handsets design should be able to differentiate between femtocells and real cell environment. In part, this relates to complexities in managing the radio environment and mobility between femtocell and macrocell networks. This is easy said then done and hence various optimisations are desirable, especially when dense deployments of femtos occur. These drive changes in areas such as the way the phone "selects" cells on which to register. There may also need to be ways to offer provisioning and "guest access" on femtocells, from the handset UI. But this cannot be considered as a solution as users will definitely consider this as an unnecessary exercise for them. In my view the medium term hopes of the industry also reflect the notion that people will use their cellphones differently when in range of femtos. The problem for the femtocells industry doesn’t end with solving the problem of registering to the right cell. There will be different applications and behavioural patterns when people are at home, perhaps content backups, podcasts or even advertiser sponsored TV programming. The mobile phone may need to linked to TV, PC, HiFi or other items of domestic technology. This shows the road ahead is really tough and it again highlights the degree of innovations that will be required for the handsets design in order to work precisely in the femtocell environment.
Some reports suggest that standard phones can work with femtocells, but they are not optimised. Certain applications may only work when the phone is within femto range but they need to know when that is. Yes, some services can be notified by the core network that the user is "at home", but that approach doesn't scale to a wide base of operators, application developers and handset/OS vendors. The phone needs to be "aware" of the femtocell, ideally both in the radio and the application platform.
There is definitely a perception that the femtocell industry needs to be much more open minded about the need for modifying and optimising handsets and to be alert to the huge time and effort it will take to achieve. Other mobile developments like UMA and IMS have suffered in the past from a lack of focus on this issue. Although many femto advocates fear distractions could delay immediate market acceptance, early consideration of these "2nd order" problems is necessary for longer-term success.
What I have seen that there is significant efforts to make the femtos success and overcome the difficulties. The new 3GPP Release 8 specifications contain various modifications to enable handsets to work better with femtos (called Home NodeB's). Various suggestions have been made for "femto-zone" services -but there is no standardised way for handset applications to "know" they are on the femto. Although there are various workarounds, with the network notifying the application when the phone is attached to the femto, this approach is not easily scalable to the wider base of developers or operators. At the moment the best solution suggested is for handset "connection manager" software to explicitly recognise femtocell access as a new and specific type of bearer.
There is no doubt in my mind that operators could benefit from new revenue streams from advertisers & other third parties by enabling the provision of "at home" services via femtocells.
Using baseline forecasts, there should be a demand for at least 48m femto-aware handsets to be sold to femtocell owners in 2013. However, with more optimistic forecasts, and especially if "shared" femtocell models become popular, there could potentially be a demand for up to 300m femto-aware handsets per year in 2013.