|Topic:||Femtocells – a new delivery model for mobile broadband|
|Title:||Co-Founder and VP, Business Development|
Sanjeev Verma is a co-founder and the Vice President of Business Development of Airvana, focusing on strategic direction and expansion into new markets. Prior to founding Airvana, Mr Verma was Director of Marketing and Business Development for Broadband Networking at Motorola, responsible for wireless and wireline broadband residential gateway solutions. Mr Verma has an extensive software development background, and was also a senior manager in Motorola’s strategy group responsible for the Internet and Networking Group’s broadband networking strategy. Sanjeev Verma holds an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management and an M.S. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Rhode Island.
Mobile broadband is growing rapidly, so rapidly that the available radiofrequency spectrum and traditional network architectures can no longer handle the traffic. Femtocells, tiny cellular base stations, create mobile networks within the home or office. Femtocells economically deliver mobile voice and data services using existing fixed broadband infrastructure instead of expensive dedicated lines for backhaul, so households can effectively ‘re-use’ scarce radio frequency spectrum, thereby reducing the need to invest in the construction and operation of costly cell tower sites.
Late last year in an open letter to The Times, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made the bold statement that universal access to broadband was as essential in a modern economy as water and gas. By comparing broadband with the utilities we take for granted, the Prime Minister has shown how important broadband has become to our daily lives. Apart from surfing the Web for recreation, we also use broadband to access news and information, and it has become an essential tool for business and education. The UK government recently implemented a policy initiative to modernise Britain’s communications infrastructure, called ‘Digital Britain’. The policy is driven by the realisation that for a country like Britain to retain its competitive advantage, it must ensure that its citizens have access to broadband. Those without broadband access will be at a disadvantage as they miss a wide range of services and activities, from shopping, banking, and public services to downloading music from iTunes! Switching to mobile broadband Broadband is no longer restricted to a DSL connection in the home or at work. Fixed line broadband is giving way to mobile broadband, which is meeting growing demand for broadband access on the move. Mobile broadband usage is growing rapidly. Recent research from Berg Insight indicated that by the end of 2008 the number of connections in Europe had grown by 74 per cent since the previous year. The UK, Germany and Italy are currently leading the way, accounting for 60 per cent of total usage across Europe. Mobile broadband has become big business. In the UK alone, each service provider offers dozens of packages for businesses and consumers to choose from and all are advertising multi-megabit speeds, along with incentives such as a dongle or laptop. However, most of the broadband speeds that users experience are well below the advertised specs. A recent study of UK mobile broadband speeds, by Epitiro, a specialist in customer relationship management, revealed that, on average, only 24 per cent of the data rates advertised reached the maximum available throughputs. If mobile broadband is going to live up to the promise of a true broadband service, then it must be able to deliver high-speed connections more consistently. However, the performance challenges for mobile broadband services, caused by factors such as topological and structural obstructions, and geographical distances in low-density service areas, are difficult to overcome when delivering services using the traditional outdoor tower ‘macro’ model. There is a device on the market now that can help mobile broadband services reach their full potential. This device is capable of boosting the mobile broadband signal by making intelligent use of the radio frequency spectrum and the existing fixed broadband network infrastructure to concentrate network resources directly into the home. This device is called a femtocell. The base station in your living room About the size of a wireless router, the femtocell is a miniaturised cellular base station that creates a mobile network within the home. It provides a full signal within a home or office, and connects to the operator’s network via an existing fixed broadband connection. As a result, it provides comprehensive in-home coverage for voice calls, as well as mobile broadband speeds up to five times faster than a macro cellular network. The femtocell can facilitate coverage in places that have been notoriously difficult for mobile operators to reach, such as in buildings or in remote rural areas. As countries like the UK develop their fixed line infrastructure to extend broadband access, the femtocell will be able to play a crucial role in enhancing the broadband experience because it leverages the fixed network to significantly improve the broadband signal. Femtocells also dramatically improve the economics of delivering mobile voice and data services. They achieve this in several ways: by using the existing fixed broadband Internet infrastructure rather than expensive dedicated lines, for backhaul; by enabling in every household the effective ‘re-use’ of scarce radio frequency spectrum; and by reducing the need to invest in the construction and operation of costly cell tower sites. These very real economic benefits, in turn, allow mobile operators to offer more attractive voice and data plans to their subscribers. In short, the femtocell is a delivery mechanism for mobile services, which can potentially help initiatives like Digital Britain reach their objectives. Changing the nature of mobile Femtocells also benefit operators because they offload traffic from the regular mobile network to save both spectrum and backhaul capacity. Widespread deployments of femtocells will relieve the pressure on the network and lead to better quality mobile network services becoming more widely available. In addition, the femtocell is an intelligent device that can detect the presence of mobile phones that are within its range. This location-awareness opens the door to a new generation of services. In effect, the femtocell ‘knows’ when the user is at home and when other registered phones are in the household. This functionality can be put to good use in the form of security applications that alert emergency services of a situation involving an intruder, fire or accident. Enhancing the user experience Beyond emergency services, there are useful applications such as the virtual home number. In this, a unique phone number is associated with the home, rather than with individual mobile users, by automatically ringing whichever registered users happen to be home at the time of the call or by redirecting to voicemail when nobody is home. As a society, we have become dependent on our mobile phones, neglecting the need for a central landline in the home. A femtocell can act as the anchor for all the mobile phones in the house in the same way that the base of the cordless phone supports the fixed line telephone. It is comforting to know that in today’s society where we have moved away from the traditional wire-line home, mobile can provide us with something as familiar as a home number. Femtocells can provide the basis for many more interesting services such as automatic synchronisation with digital media, and remote control of home appliances, via the mobile handset. Trials of femtocells are underway all across the globe and in some cases, such as Sprint in the US and Vodafone in the UK, have already been deployed. The UK is currently a hotbed of femtocell research and development, and British-based companies are poised to drive this new technology forward. Cambridge and Bath, which are already renowned centres of technology in the UK, have emerged as hubs of femtocell development. Access all areas The femtocell represents the solution to a number of problems that the mobile world currently faces; the frustration that users face when there are lapses in coverage, and the churn experienced by operators when they are unable to provide consistent and high quality coverage to their subscribers. There are other applications for this startling new device, as one can also use the femtocell in a business environment, giving similar facilities to small businesses and enterprises. What is most significant is the role that the femtocell will play delivering mobile broadband and providing high-quality access to services in the home and in the work place. Importantly, the femtocell can help policymakers meet their goals of universal access to broadband and mobile broadband services and the benefits it can provide. Gordon Brown was correct when he compared broadband to being as vital as water and gas – without it we cannot function as a society; with devices like the femtocell the chances of the pipes being blocked are reduced dramatically. The femtocell provides an alternative platform for the mobile operators to offer subscribers their own personal network, taking away the need to contend for spectrum with countless others, enabling new services, and enhancing existing ones. It will allow subscribers to interact with mobile broadband services in new and exciting ways, and in the process revolutionise the mobile experience.