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MWC 2010: Femtocell Tech Set to Hit All UK Networks

Gordon Kelly


MWC 2010: Femtocell Tech Set to Hit All UK Networks

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...




February 19, 2010, 8:12 pm

Another box to find a home and a plug for? You still need broadband for it to work, so if you live in a poor signal area (like I do) then why not get a phone with UMA that works with your wireless router (like I did)?

Sorry, I just don't get it - please enlighten me as to the benefits of this, someone!! Seem to be another solution for a problem that already has a solution - just need more phones with UMA.


February 19, 2010, 8:28 pm


1. many people have poor phone reception no matter what network they use, this is a solution

2. femtocell doesn't boost your existing reception, it replaces it guaranteeing a flawless signal

3. Most people have broadband these days

4. It's cheap

5. Phones with UMA are limited and restrict your handset options and there is little plan to expand the tech.

6. The changeover is seamless so the phone will automatically switch to femtocell when in range and even when in-call.

7. Femtocell lightens the load on the existing 3G infrastructure improving network performance for others.


February 19, 2010, 9:41 pm

Do you "pair" handsets to the cell ? So it's just the ones I choose that are utilising my broadband ?

Or does this "plug and play" mean that all my neighbours and anyone walking down the road outside can use my broadband to boost their signal too ?


February 19, 2010, 9:58 pm

@AJ - yes, you pair handsets so you won't just get random passers-by connecting.


February 19, 2010, 10:53 pm

Living in a coverage dead zone for all networks, Vodafone got my and my wife's contracts last year as soon as Sure Signal (or Home Access Gateway as it then was) was released. It works brilliantly, with seamless transition and no messing about with phone settings.

I wonder how much business like mine the other networks have lost to Voda as a result of Sure Signal being the only option since last year? It looks to be a shrewd move for Voda with the box being closed, as having paid once for Sure Signal I certainly won't be paying again for anyone else's femtocell when they finally get them to market. They'll need to be giving them away to tempt me back.


February 20, 2010, 3:04 pm

If UMA hadn't been invented, then I can see the need, but it has so why not develop it rather than reinvent the wheel with a new tech? (Sorry if I'm coming across all UMA fanboy here!)

To address Gordon's points:

1, So is UMA.

2. So does UMA

3. So they can use UMA

4. So is UMA, if you've already got a wireless router, then it's free if you've got the right handset.

5. True, but if a phone's got wifi then it's just a software update.

6. Isn't this also true of UMA, or if not it could be with a bit of software tweakage.

7. So does UMA.

Also, your wireless router isn't fussy if you change phones from Vodafone to Orange, for example, and how many people really want a mini mobile phone mast in their living room, given the (largely unproven) hysteria over mobile phone signals?

To me, the main advantage is that it works with any handset, however you are then likely to be tied to the one network, unless you can buy your own 'unlocked' to do with as you see fit.

Still need convincing! ;-)


February 20, 2010, 6:55 pm

Wonder if apple would be able to use it's market power to create/force a multi operator iPhone only femtocell (e.g. an AirPort 3G ), to go along with a video calling iPhone 4G. I suspect most iphone (o2) users would jump at the opportunity.


February 20, 2010, 8:06 pm

@ChrisC read @Mullet

Furthermore "the main advantage is that it works with any handset" is absolutely crucial. UMA is an excellent technology, but it is a long way from being a blanket technology. There is space for both technologies though, so hopefully they will push one another forward.


February 21, 2010, 9:18 am

I get why this appeals and why it might be used.. what I don't get is the cost. If you are under a contract to a network provider you should get a level of service. If they can't provide that and GIVE you a little box you can hook to your internet to cover the gap, fine. But if they still charge you for calls and the network data still goes against your monthly allowance then that is wrong.

I believe that not only do the networks charge for the box, they charge extra on your contract and they still charge you for calls and data just the same? WTF, that's a triple whammy. How is it allowed? It's not only ridiculous but extremely greedy. It takes advantage of locked in customers who weren't being served properly in the first place.


February 23, 2010, 5:32 am


UMA cannot simply be enabled by software according to every source I have read, otherwise iPhone jailbreakers would have cracked it wide open from day one and been making calls via UMA for a long time now

Also the reason I have been told that the networks would rather support femtocells than UMA is because they have no way of tracking calls made via UMA, hence they are unable to charge you for them accordingly, whereas they can track calls made via a femtocell and ensure all calls are charged as per your contract, and they can also include femtocells in their overall coverage statistics

Unfortunately I think you will see UMA dying out in favour of the femtocell technology

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