|Issue:||Europe I 2009|
|Topic:||Mobile broadband Internet with femtocells|
Chris Gilbert is the CEO of Ubiquisys. Prior to Ubiquisys, Mr Gilbert served as the CEO of IPWireless, a Red Herring Top 100 Private Company, an AlwaysOn ‘ Innovator’; IPWireless also won Network Magazine’s Wireless Product of the Year award. Previously Mr Gilbert had held senior roles with Motorola where he managed the company’s cellular infrastructure business in some 60 EMEA countries. Chris Gilbert earned a BSC in Physics from Bristol University in the UK.
Femtocells, small cellular access points in the home, deliver low cost, faster, high quality 3G mobile coverage in the home. 3G mobile broadband adoption has suffered because of poor indoor reception and high prices. When users come home, the mobile phone automatically switches from the macro network to the femtocell, which routes all voice and data traffic via the home broadband connection. This brings users better service and lower cost and helps operators by reducing traffic on the mobile network.
Since the initial 3G hype at the beginning of the century, mobile operators have been looking to drive revenues through services beyond voice and simple messaging. However, it is only relatively recently that all of the necessary factors have begun to align to start to make this a reality. The first requirement was the proliferation of more advanced phones boasting web browsing and advanced multimedia capabilities, the second was the deployment of advanced cellular networks to provide the data connections necessary for enabling these new services. However while advanced handsets are now commonplace, 3G networks still lack the footprint of their 2G predecessors and also suffer from notable indoor coverage issues. In order to solve these issues many operators have turned to femtocells as a possible solution, and in so doing have discovered that they offer a number of additional previously unseen benefits and potential revenue streams. 2008 has been an exciting year in the femtocell industry, with key operators such as T-Mobile and O2 announcing technology and market trials and the Japanese operator Softbank announcing the world’s first mass commercial 3G service launch. Simply put, a femtocell is a small cellular access point that delivers low cost, great 3G mobile coverage in the home – resulting in higher quality, cheaper voice calls and faster data services. When the user enters the home, their mobile phone automatically switches over from the macro network to the femtocell, which then routes all voice and data traffic via the home broadband connection. When the femtocell was first conceived the emphasis was on providing a solution to 3G coverage issues. Our founder, Will Franks, came up with the concept after being unable to get a mobile phone signal in his rural cottage. However, improved voice coverage is only one potential benefit. It subsequently became clear that femtocells also deliver a true mobile broadband experience to users, delivering extremely high speed, low-cost data to those connected. They also offer operators a solution to the potential macro network congestion issues posed by the dramatic take-up of 3G dongles and a new generation of smartphones that open up a range of exciting new applications and services possibilities. Across the world, hundreds of millions of people have both a mobile phone and access to a broadband connection at home, but to date, these two disparate technologies have existed completely independently. However, as mobile phones increasingly gain power and functionality, users expect many of the same services that they use on their fixed PCs to be available on the mobile. Handsets such as the Nokia N96, iPhone and G1 Android device all boast the capabilities to effectively manage and handle rich multimedia applications. However, the dramatic uptake of mobile broadband ‘unlimited’ data packages is presenting a major strain on the network. Furthermore, since the vast majority of mobile data usage takes place indoors, it is unfortunate that this is precisely where high speed wireless coverage is often poor. Femtocells offer operators a solution to this issue by providing guaranteed mobile coverage in the home for rapid downloads of bandwidth hungry multimedia files and applications with low cost for both the operator and consumer. Equally importantly, by offloading the heavy data users from the macro network, subscribers outdoors can enjoy improved data rates as well. As a fringe benefit femtocells also considerably improve the battery life of power-hungry multimedia devices, by enabling the handset’s radio to power down, which can as much as double the time required between charges on a typical 3G handset, but that’s just the start. Providing this cheap, high-speed, bandwidth opens multimedia phones up to a wide range of exciting new applications and services, just as fixed-line broadband led to an explosion of web services and PC applications. Femtocells also connect these phones to the home network allowing media sharing between all devices. They can, for instance, let you access your PC’s audio, video and image libraries on your mobile phone. The potential for new applications that are based not only on location, but on interaction is only beginning to become apparent. In addition to bringing the speed of the fixed Internet to the mobile, femtocells also bring the application experience to the mobile. Providing a platform that lets Web application designers reach the mobile phone will greatly accelerate innovation, opening up a whole new world of service possibilities. In addition to providing a link to the home network and true broadband data, femtocells also enable functions such as presence triggers, which detect when the user enters or leaves the home and activates applications accordingly. Many of these applications are currently in development, but include a service which sends a text message informing parents when their child’s mobile phone has arrived home and systems that automatically download or upload photography, video and other multimedia. On current 3G networks, such services have been constrained by technical issues, high pricing and/or poor user experience. Using the femtocell approach, a user could return home and instantly download podcasts or upload photos at high speed, the in home data transfer could be at zero cost, providing the end user with transparent pricing. A further issue resolved by femtocells is that of network capacity. In the UK, the success of the BBC’s iPlayer video on demand service has highlighted capacity concerns for fixed Internet ISPs; mobile operators potentially face similar issues as data hungry services begin to become popular. On mobile networks, the main capacity bottlenecks are in the air interface – between the base station and the handset, and the backhaul network – between base stations and the network core. Today these links are under pressure from soaring mobile data usage principally for applications such as Web browsing, Google Maps and email. However, tomorrow’s mobile capacity challenge will be such data hungry applications as mobile TV and multimedia. The recent launch of a version of iPlayer for Nokia N-Series handsets and its inclusion on the 3G iPhone suggests that this could happen sooner rather than later. For an operator the obvious solution is to upgrade the backhaul network and/or build out additional macro base stations. However, while this appears to be a simple solution, it is neither practical nor economically viable. Femtocells offer an alternative by removing data users from the mobile macro network, especially when they are at home, where much heavy data use is likely to take place. In addition to easing capacity concerns, this also has the added benefit of actually enhancing the performance of the macro network. While femtocells have been much hyped over the past couple of years, the underlying technology has just now reached maturity and the first commercial operator deployments are underway. In September, Japan’s SoftBank announced that it would be the first mobile operator to launch a mass commercial 3G service, beginning January 2009, and a raft of additional operator announcements are expected in the coming year. While there is no doubt that the initial promise of resolving coverage issues is significant, femtocells will have a far more significant impact upon the mobile world – effectively converging the fixed Internet and the cellular world and placing the mobile handset at the centre of things; 2009 is set to be a very interesting year!