Are femto cells the latest over-hyped bubble, or do they offer a genuine answer to user and operator needs? With hype gathering around the femto cell, it seemed a good chance to get a look at how the industry itself thinks femto cell adoption is going to go.
At the recent Base Station conference in Bath, representatives of the femto cell makers and component suppliers themselves, as well as competitive macro cell and VoIP suppliers, agreed that where an operator has both fixed and mobile network assets, and is operating in a highly saturated market, then femto cells make sense as a platform for fixed mobile convergence and substitution.
Much of the thinking revolved around the benefits to operators: address FMS and FMC, no need for new handsets, ability to roll out 3G network cheaply, and reduce backhaul costs. Having a box inside people’s houses would also be a great way to start providing more advanced services as well, once all the voice minutes had been snared. Yet what the benefits to users would be of having a femto cell inside the house was made less clear.
The main user case arguments were that it is a great way to provide coverage in-building in areas that suffer from poor coverage. Also, although there are already wireless (UMA and VoWiFi) offerings out there, the advantage of femto cells is that users would not need to get a special dual-more phone, or change anything else about their set up.
Barriers to entry included the competitive landscape, with triple and quad play competition looming from all areas. But technically there are issues too. How will these network elements be managed and controlled within an operator’s larger networks? How will they be integrated into a Pre-IMS and IMS architecture, once they are out in the field? Can the costs of manufacture be brought down low enough that they can be punted out to the market at an acceptable cost?
But the discussion also highlighted something more fundamental in the industry: that the pure play mobile operator may be staring down a long, narrowing, tunnel. Femto cells need to go on the end of a DSL, or some other broadband, connection. Operators need to have some control of that connection for marketing and technical reasons, and none we know of would consider an FMC strategy purely using a re-sold DSL connection from another ISP. Therefore, although the chat may be about femto cells, what we’re really talking about is the converged operator — the subject of this issue’s special focus.