Femtocells: Obscure name, bright future

Speedy mobile handsets could finally be on their way

For all the speed mobile operators are building into their networks, a lot of it doesn't reach subscribers trying to make calls or surf the Web indoors. While some carriers look to Wi-Fi and dual-mode phones to bridge the gap, another technology is coming along that could work with the handsets customers have today.

Femtocells, named after a small order of size in physics, are cellular base stations for homes and offices. The concept is not new, but the constant smaller-and-cheaper trend in processors has finally made it feasible. Several carriers are considering the technology, according to vendors and analysts, and the first large commercial deployments may hit the ground next year.

Mobile operators have invested billions of dollars in licenses and infrastructure for fast 3G (third-generation) mobile data networks. Yet subscribers often can't get the throughput they've paid for when they're indoors -- exactly where people are most likely to use network-intensive multimedia services, said ABI Research analyst Stuart Carlaw. Picocells, often used in office buildings and campuses, are too big for home use.

To get the bandwidth where it's needed, mobile providers are looking to the DSL (digital subscriber line) and cable modems most subscribers have in their homes. This also saves them money on backhaul, the links that tie the cellular to the wired network, which carriers typically have to lease. At the moment, giving better in-home coverage means using Wi-Fi. T-Mobile USA, BT Group and France Telecom all have services that let subscribers use the cellular network outside and automatically switch to Wi-Fi indoors.

Wi-Fi router options are plentiful and inexpensive. But when it comes to phones, subscribers who want to go this route have only a handful of models to choose from. Because femtocells are just like regular cellular base stations, any phone for the carrier's network can be used with them. From the carrier's perspective, a femtocell system is also preferable because it has the same security between the phone and the cell, according to Wen Tong, a research fellow at Nortel Networks.

The 3G bandwidth crunch is real. For example, EV-DO (Evolution-Data Optimized) 3G technology is supposed to deliver between 400K bps (bits per second) and 600K bps of throughput on average. But if just 20 subscribers try to access data services at the same time, a typical EV-DO base station can only provide 100K bps to each, Tong said. Supporting more users over the base station's range, which typically is several kilometers, requires expensive upgrades.

Cost has been the major barrier to femtocell adoption. Nokia and Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson tried out the concept more than 10 years ago, but the equipment for homes and offices was too big and too expensive, ABI's Carlaw said. Moore's Law, which predicts that microprocessors will continually get faster and smaller, soon will make that customer equipment small and cheap enough to deploy commercially. Carlaw believes that in 2009, when most observers expect femtocells to hit the market in force, a cell with an integrated broadband modem will cost the carrier about US$120 (AU$150.8).

Paying for an entirely new device will be a tricky issue in the price-sensitive cellular business, according to In-Stat analyst Allen Nogee. U.S. carriers already subsidize handsets and will be reluctant to take on the additional cost, he said. And European and Asian operators aren't used to offering subsidies at all. It may be hard to persuade subscribers to pay for something that essentially saves the carrier from having to build a better network and deliver the performance it promised in the first place, Nogee said.

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Stephen Lawson

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Bang and Olufsen Beosound Stage - Dolby Atmos Soundbar

Learn more >

Toys for Boys

ASUS ROG, ACRONYM partner for Special Edition Zephyrus G14

Learn more >

Nakamichi Delta 100 3-Way Hi Fi Speaker System

Learn more >

Sony WF-1000XM3 Wireless Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

Family Friendly

Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit for Nintendo Switch

Learn more >

Philips Sonicare Diamond Clean 9000 Toothbrush

Learn more >

Stocking Stuffer

SunnyBunny Snowflakes 20 LED Solar Powered Fairy String

Learn more >

Teac 7 inch Swivel Screen Portable DVD Player

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Tom Pope

Dynabook Portégé X30L-G

Ultimately this laptop has achieved everything I would hope for in a laptop for work, while fitting that into a form factor and weight that is remarkable.

Tom Sellers

MSI P65

This smart laptop was enjoyable to use and great to work on – creating content was super simple.

Lolita Wang

MSI GT76

It really doesn’t get more “gaming laptop” than this.

Jack Jeffries

MSI GS75

As the Maserati or BMW of laptops, it would fit perfectly in the hands of a professional needing firepower under the hood, sophistication and class on the surface, and gaming prowess (sports mode if you will) in between.

Taylor Carr

MSI PS63

The MSI PS63 is an amazing laptop and I would definitely consider buying one in the future.

Christopher Low

Brother RJ-4230B

This small mobile printer is exactly what I need for invoicing and other jobs such as sending fellow tradesman details or step-by-step instructions that I can easily print off from my phone or the Web.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?