Femtocells solve a common and irritating problem: poor
mobile phone coverage within buildings. It's not just failed
connections or dropped voice calls - lack of signal also prevents
data transactions such as text messages, MMS (picture) messages,
and email messages from getting through.
A femtocell resolves this situation very simply. Normally a
handset or mobile device connects via radio to the local mast
antennae, and then into a fixed network that carries the call on.
A femtocell is like a private mast that connects through your
broadband connection. Everything then works as normal. How simple
is that? Best of all, the cost of this performance boost is a
The closest competition for femtocells are fixed/mobile
convergence products using UMA (Unlicensed Mobile Access)
standards. These products normally use Wi-Fi or Bluetooth to
create the connection when no cellular signal is available. In
the UK, the best example of this offering is BT's Fusion phone.
The original product, developed with Motorola, was designed to
use Bluetooth (and later Wi-Fi) to 'roam' onto the broadband
connection in a domestic property, enabling high speed downloads
and free voice calls. Outside the property, the phone used
conventional cellular connections. Such services require special
(UMA-enabled) handsets, and it's fair to say they have yet to
really catch on.
Currently in Europe, only Vodafone and SFR have actually launched
femtocells to their customers and their focus is very much on the
consumer or small business. Large organisations - such as
enterprises and public services - will be the next focus.
Femtocells on the other hand, work with conventional devices. The
potential demand looks enormous. ABI Research predicts there will
be 32 million femtocell access points worldwide by 2011
supporting some 102 million users. That's because the mobile
network operators will benefit enormously. From a mobile network
operator's perspective, the advantage to offering femtocells is
obvious. They extend the company's 3G coverage with absolutely no
capital outlay. The customer is paying for both extra base
stations, which the femtocell covers, and the (backhaul) network
connection, which is covered by the customer's ADSL connection.
The two main commercial suppliers at present are Alcatel-Lucent
and Ubiquisys. The latter has supplied the 'Petit' base stations
to France's SFR, the second operator to launch a femtocell
service in Europe after Vodafone, which launched its service in
the UK in October 2009. SFR is Ubiquisys' second commercial
customer with Japan's Softbank being its first.
According to Keith Day, VP for marketing with Ubiquisys: 'Most
businesses only think in terms of a single femtocell improving
in-building voice call coverage. However, today's femtocells are
highly intelligent devices that can create their own mesh network
to improve 3G reception.'
Day continues: 'Unlike previous offerings, there's no need for a
radio engineer. The boxes simply configure themselves. So,
suddenly it's an affordable proposition for businesses
of all sizes.' Since each femtocell can communicate with other
femtocells in the mesh via an existing cabled LAN, they can
automatically configure themselves. For example, they might
customise the signal power levels to avoid interference.
Alternatively, if 3G users suddenly congregate around one
particular cell, the others can increase their signal power to
spread the load.
It's also possible to tie femtocells into a corporate telephone
system (a PABX that is IP based). This means the mobile
operator's network still handles all the signalling but data -
such as email attachments - can be delivered to a 3G device via
the corporate LAN. This process is known as local off-loading.
'Femtocells not only provide better coverage but improved data
connectivity. This is important given the reliance employees
place on 3G devices such as BlackBerrys
or a netbook PC with a 3G dongle,' Day concludes.
What is a femtocell?
A femtocell is essentially a personal 3G base station, which is
placed in a home or office. This product extends cellular
coverage inside a building, particularly to those parts of a
building where a handset receives no signal or has limited
All that a femtocell requires is a regular broadband connection
(usually through ADSL/BT line, although cable is equally viable).
Besides power, all it needs is a regular mobile phone.
However, keeping unit production costs down means that the mobile
phone networks have restricted these products to 3G phones. The
data throughput speed advantages also means that a minimum of a
3G phone makes sense, although higher speed (HSDPA) handsets are
Typically, one single femtocell will support between one and four
simultaneous users. Luckily, these units self-configure so that
they don't clash with each other or with the normal signal from a
nearby phone mast. The most logical place to locate a femtocell
would be deep in the heart of a building where mobile phones
normally don't work.
'Femto' means one-quadrillionth so adds nothing to people's
understanding of what they do, therefore they are often referred
to as an 'access gateway' or 'access point base station'.
With the Vodafone Sure Signal product, for example, there's
little setting up to do, although Vodafone does require the owner
to register (online) the telephone numbers of those handsets that
intend to take advantage of the femtocell service.
CASE STUDY: Markettiers4dc
'We're located in a lower ground floor office, which in common
parlance means we are in a basement,' Dan Humphreys, associate
director with Markettiers4dc confesses.
The company is a broadcast PR specialist, based in London. 'From
its business model perspective, being located in a building with
no cellular signal makes sense because it effectively
"soundproofs" the office,' Humphreys adds. 'The premises have
proved ideal for when Markettiers4dc needs to record an audio
track for one of its clients, for instance. The downside to being
located in a soundproofed environment is that there's absolutely
no cellular signal available.'
Humphreys estimated there are around 60 people working in these
'subterranean' premises, whose mobile phones would typically stop
working. The problem has been cured, however, by rolling out
femtocells supplied by Vodafone. The product is marketed as the
Vodafone Sure Signal and is available to SMEs for a one-off cost
of Â£42.56 (or Â£4.26 per month for 12 months). It is also
available on 24 month plans for a one-off cost of Â£102 (or Â£4.26
per month for 24 months). Suppliers such as Expansys offer
discounts for five units or more. The call and data charges for
using a handset via the femtocell is exactly the same as
connecting via a regular phone mast.
Given the need to register each 3G handset to take advantage of
the Vodafone Sure Signal with the network operator, some
Markettiers4dc employees have taken to registering their best
clients' numbers so they work, too. [This only works if they are
also on Vodafone]. However, as each femtocell can hold around 30
telephone numbers, there is sufficient room for this practice.
'Now everyone can potentially get a connection,' Humphreys
enthused. 'Why would we not get them [femtocells] given that
advantage? It's a no-brainer.'
What deploying femtocells has effectively done for the com