With only Vodafone's Sure Signal product (below, left) on the UK market at present 'femtocell' is not a phrase that is overly common, but expect it to become a major topic of conversation over the next 12 months.
I've discussed femtocell before, but in a nutshell what it does is provide a replacement signal for 3G handsets by tapping into your home/work broadband connection. The result is flawless reception, fast Internet and an invisible switch to the end user as they walk into femtocell signal areas. There is no setup required, a small unit (see two examples below) is plugged into the mains and into your home router via Ethernet and you're done. So what's the latest?
Speaking at Mobile World Congress Professor Simon Saunders, chairman of the femtoforum - the official non-profit standards' body proclaimed "2010 is the breakthrough year for femtocell". From a UK perspective he was able to confirm the backing of industry regular Ofcom while T-Mobile, Telefonica/O2, Vodafone and Orange have all signed up as members so far. Furthermore, deployment of femtocell solutions to compete with Sure Signal is now ready and in their hands.
"The technology is there and it is now a matter of timing for the operators," he told me. "I cannot give specific dates, but all UK operators should be looking at a 2010 roll-out."
So far 55 network operators are femtocell forum members around the world, and operator commitments have jumped 50 per in the last three months alone. On top of this 3GPP has formalised femtocell standards, and the body's next generation ('Release 9') will bring support for LTE and enhancements for UMTS. The WiMax Forum is also on board as is the FCC in the US while China and Japan have confirmed their support.
Of course the big counter argument to femtocell is simple: it is our network's responsibility to provide high quality signal to our homes and workplaces, not our responsibility to pay out extra (a Sure Signal box starts from £50 depending on your current tariff) to paper over their cracks. Saunders has sympathy with this opinion and admitted boxes are likely to cost a nominal amount quickly. This is primarily because deployment is also in the telco's interest since they remove 3G traffic from their networks and consequently free up bandwidth for everyone else.
"There has been an exponential growth in data traffic" he explained. "Over 80 per cent of mobile traffic is indoors in terms of voice and data is growing too. Operators need the costs per bit brought down and femtocells are perfect for this. There is no end user configuration required and it guarantees maximum data rates and reduced load on data networks."
The problem? One of greed. All a femtocell needs to operate on across multiple networks is for the operator to approve devices over their gateways, but at present the networks which do offer femtocells lock them down so its network benefits from the service (this tactic is also practiced by Vodafone). Consequently a family could require multiple femtocell boxes to cover multiple networks and it all gets a bit messy.
"The technology is certainly there to open up femtocells across all networks, but operators are looking on a return on investment" said Saunders. "Unlocking is certainly possible, but since it offers a service differentiator right now and networks are concerned about their services becoming a commodity it is unlikely to be feasible in the immediate future." Notably this is a stance which does over third party femtocell makers like HSL (its product, right) which are unable to sell direct to end users.
On the Brightside, so-called 'Plugtests' which push for full femtocell interoperability to an agreed industry standard are underway and 20 operators have signed up to that. So a more open future should happen at some point.
The current state of play? As of now there are nine live commercial networks selling femtocell products with a further three in the midst of deployment. Meanwhile the global femtocell market is anticipated to be worth $9bn per annum by 2014. The changes are being rung people - and this time you'll be able to hear them without walking to a specific place in the house...