ip.access CEO, Stephen Mallinson, discusses the impact of pico and femtocells with Priscilla Awde
Mobile operators everywhere are facing something of a conundrum which goes like this: in saturated markets they must increase revenues from high margin data services but these are typically bandwidth hungry applications resulting in a network capacity crunch. Additionally, recent research shows that around 60 per cent of customers use their mobiles inside buildings at work and at home. As people exploit the benefits of the big new touch screen smartphones, they will expect networks to be fast enough to provide the necessary capacity reliably and everywhere. These are growing trends.
However, delivering the promise of mobile multimedia applications means delivering high-speed indoor mobile networks. Which poses big questions for operators: how can they get broadband 3G networks inside to provide reliable, cost effective in-building coverage? How can they do it fast, without significant and expensive investment in macro networks and give customers access to the applications they want at prices they are willing to pay?
Fortunately ip.access has the answers since bringing high-speed wireless networks inside is its raison d'être. Building on its long experience in developing IP communications solutions, ip.access designs and manufactures picocells for business users and femtocells for the domestic market.
Picocells and femtocells plug directly into existing fixed broadband networks be they DSL, cable, satellite or even WiMax. Acting as mini-base stations, both can be quickly installed anywhere in buildings or outside to bring networks to where the demand is.
These plug and play units have advantages for everyone. For users, both professional and consumers, they make the mobile phone a truly broadband device which can reliably connect to high-speed networks anywhere. For operators, pico and femtocells take traffic off the macro wireless network, add capacity and improve performance. They also give telcos the competitive advantage they need to sell into new sectors and offer a range of high margin value added services.
For years ip.access has successfully deployed nanoGSM picocells in enterprises, business parks, skyscrapers, underground and public buildings. They are even installed on planes, ships and other remote locations where they are connected to broadband satellite backhaul networks. Depending on their size, picocells can support up to 100 users and companies can dot them around the organisation to provide connections where needed.
Solving the problem for residential users, the Oyster3G femtocell allows people to use their existing mobiles to access broadband applications at home. Supporting up to four simultaneous connections, family members can get seamless high-speed access as they move about inside the house. ip.access expects commercial deployments of plug and play 3G femtocells will be up and running by spring 2009.
"There are two legs to our business," explains Stephen Mallinson, CEO at ip.access. "We design end-to-end pico and femtocell solutions so operators can deliver robust solid networks for business and residential users inside any building, ship or aircraft."
The difference between the two is one of size, power, capacity, functionality, price and target audience. However both allow operators to add capacity cost effectively, divert traffic from the macro network and thereby improve performance for all users connected to a cell site. Network black spots in cities and rural areas can be eliminated and people previously unable to get mobile signals can be connected to high-speed networks.
"Operators can use pico and femtocells to put broadband wireless networks precisely where there is demand be that indoors or outside," explains Mallinson. "They can do this without either the expense or controversy of installing new masts and avoid adding equipment to existing base stations. The advantages extend beyond capacity issues: operators can introduce and support new, high margin services and offer home zone tariffs to drive up data usage inside and on the move.
"There are QOS advantages: although people may tolerate occasional dropped voice calls they will be less forgiving if essential business communications or video content are interrupted. These mini-base stations ensure connections are maintained as people move around inside buildings."
Plugging mini-base stations into the existing broadband connections takes indoor data sessions off the macro network so raising the number of users each site can support and increasing its capacity beyond the number of users removed. Operators therefore do not have to invest either in backhaul or in increasing base station capacity. According to ip.access, instead of upgrading the macro network to meet the capacity demands of increased data usage, an operator with 10 million subscribers could save €500 million over four years by deploying fully subsidized femtocells to 20% of its subscribers' homes. Similarly, research firm Analysys-Mason calculates the annual cost saving per customer for a large operator deploying 3G femtocells is between $6 - $12.
Setting aside revenue advantages, increases in service and performance levels and churn reduction, the added capacity achieved by deploying femtocells more than makes the business case even if they are fully subsidised. Even ignoring the cost savings, it takes only a Euro 11 per month increase in ARPU spread over one household to cover the cost of fully subsidising a femtocell.
Operators are seeing an explosion in mobile data usage (in the UK 3 saw a 700% increase in data traffic throughput between September 2007 and March 2008 ), and are looking to picocells and femtocells to solve both network capacity and indoor high-speed access problems. Demand for high bandwidth multimedia mobile applications is rising fast. In the consumer market, usage growth can be attributed to the popularity of social networking sites; uploading and sharing multimedia data; mobile advertising and the personal experience enabled by mobile TV. Following the launch of the iPhone, operators reported an immediate and continuing surge in data usage.
According to Informa, 60% of mobile data traffic will be generated at home by 2013. Ovum anticipates 17 million femtocells will be deployed throughout Western Europe by 2011 and IDC expects consumer spend on femtocell enabled services to grow to $900 million by the same year. Other surveys suggest nearly half of smartphone data usage is at home and the ‘digital generation' either does, or wants to watch mobile television at home.
As distinctions between professional and consumer applications and use blur, employees at all levels are taking popular mobile services into the workspace and combining them with mobile access to multimedia corporate applications. Mobiles are an essential part of corporate life: many business applications formerly limited to fixed devices have migrated onto wireless platforms. "Picocells support reliable connectivity to network services," continues Mallinson. "Enterprises can now support the flexibility and device independent access employees need, delivering reliable and consistent mobile high-speed access everywhere."
Operators are urgently addressing the capacity problems such increases in data usage imply. Some are capping monthly unlimited data plans while others encourage content developers to limit application bandwidth. Neither of which are likely to be popular with users and may increase churn: both of which enhance the consumer proposition for deploying picocells and 3G femtocells.
While adding what could be millions of mini-base stations to a network, integrating them into existing infrastructure and systems and managing them is a significant task for operators, the rewards are potentially equally significant. The cost of delivering calls drops; service levels, speed and reliability rise and operators can introduce new, high margin services to the handsets people already have.
They can encourage both usage and fixed mobile substitution by offering FemtoZone services which are tied to a particular location and automatically activated when phones are within range of the femtocell. When people get home, texts could be automatically sent to absent parents to notify them children are back; podcasts, videos or images can be loaded to phones or targeted advertising sent to interested users.
"Femtocells are a cost effective technology and real commercial proposition for the residential market," explains Mallinson. "Most people in Europe have access to broadband networks at home and, by rolling out 3G networks, carriers are stimulating demand for mobile data. However, many users are frustrated since they cannot fully exploit the benefits of 3G phones or get the quality of service or application access they want.
"Most people use phones for data indoors where, without pico or femtocells, 3G coverage is often not reliable or signals not even available. Femtocells give consumers a better experience and faster downloads so they can really use all the features and functions 3G handsets and networks support while inside."
The Femto Forum industry body, of which ip.access is a founding board member, now includes more than 90 companies, including 36 operators covering 914 million subscribers. The Forum is encouraging the development of open standards which will lead to economies of scale - unit prices are expected to to drop below $100.
There are plans to include the new I-uh standard in release 8 of the 3GPP standard due out in December. It will replace the numerous different ways in which femtocells currently connect to networks and proprietary systems and define how they can be integrated into core networks. By standardising communications between femtocells and core network gateways, operators will no longer be locked into proprietary interfaces or particular vendors and so can choose consumer premise equipment (CPE), separately from the gateway.
Concerns about managing the multitudes of new units within a network are also being addressed by the industry. Currently available for DSL equipment, the TR-069 standard allows operators to remotely manage devices, diagnose and solve problems and download software upgrades. The standard is being extended to support the management of femtocells.
Based on open standard interfaces, the nanoGSM picocell and Oyster 3G femtocell products are total end-to-end solutions which include the requisite controllers and management systems.
Over the five years they have been used in enterprises, the advantages of the nanoGSM are well documented. Fast and easy to install it increases mobile voice and data usage and reduces operator costs. With an indoor range up to 200 metres, traffic is backhauled through existing IP networks and it supports fast data rates over GPRS and EDGE to devices such as Blackberries. The nanoGSM picocell can be hung on a wall and, once the Ethernet connection is plugged into the box, it is up and running providing guaranteed mobile capacity and service quality indoors.
Like its bigger cousin but less powerful and with a smaller range, the Oyster 3G architecture creates a complete indoor broadband access network for the residential market. Using the same underlying technical platform as the Oyster 3G, ip.access is developing next generation picocells. Having solved many of the 3G femtocell ease of use, price and installation challenges necessary to meet consumer needs, ip.access believes these solutions can be incorporated into picocells. In future, the company expects to offer self-install 3G picocells to both large enterprises and to SMEs through their existing channels.
"These are very exciting times," says Mallinson. "We are building on our experience to produce next generation picocells designed for businesses of all sizes. SMEs need plug and play, easy to use, cost effective units which can be self installed and remotely managed. It makes commercial sense for companies large and small to deploy picocells. It also makes commercial sense for operators, giving them the edge over competitors and a new value proposition for smaller companies which historically have been something of a closed shop."
It's a truism that everything is going mobile and operators are already feeling the capacity pinch. Pico and femtocells give them a cost effective means of meeting the expected upsurge in demand and delivering the network performance capable of supporting next generation multimedia applications.
Today's smart phones are as powerful and feature rich as the PCs of only a few years ago and look set to become the principle controller of all domestic electronic equipment. Operators are now able to deliver the ubiquitous high-speed networks consumers of all kinds expect.
Mallinson looks forward to the day when content is automatically and seamlessly transferred between devices over femtocell platforms: "Users will be able to control televisions remotely from their mobiles; share content between phones and other devices quickly and automatically so all are updated. In the new converged IP world, audio, video, text and photographs will be seamlessly shared between devices.