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The first commercial rollout of an in-home cell-to-broadband gateway comes from Sprint: Sprint sold its landline business, and thus they have more motivation to get cell callers to move their dollars from wire to wireless. Reports are that they’re offering a limited rollout of a Samsung femtocell, a tiny cell base station that uses licensed frequencies, with a connection to a consumer’s broadband Internet service. The markets covered are Denver and Indianapolis.
Femtocells differ from unlicensed mobile access (UMA), in that UMA uses, well, unlicensed 2.4 GHz bandwidth; femtocells using licensed frequencies can push out higher-powered signals and have no competition for the bandwidth. Further, femtocells can work with any existing handset; UMA requires new handsets that combine cell (GSM only at this point) and Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. That’s not as big a deal as it used to be, with nearly 100 handsets in production or in the market that match Wi-Fi with cell.
The service costs $50 for the device and $15 per month for unlimited local and U.S. calling. It’s called an Airave, and won’t hit nationally until 2008. Femtocells have to account for the part of the country in which they operate as each carrier owns a specific set of spectrum licenses in each geographic area. Any Sprint handset can work with the femtocell.
The cost of femtocells is estimated to be in the hundreds of dollars, making the subsidized $50 price seem rather low. But Alan Nogee of In-State is quoted with an excellent observation in this PC World article: he notes that because most home calling falls into the free weekend/evening minute category anyway, cell carriers aren’t making additional revenue. He didn’t note, too, that if you have a large minute plan, the carriers would prefer you use fewer minutes until you run over when they’d rather you pay lots of overages.
Thus, any minute pulled from a pool that’s then not used or any minute that would have been carried for free as part of a weekend/evening plan that is now part of an additional $15/month in revenue is a savings in cell carriage and an increase in revenue from the monthly fee. I like it. It also keeps people loyal to Sprint.
With UMA, depending on the network, customers can get no-minutes-used calling at hotspots, which isn’t an option with femtocells.
I’ve been dubious about femtocells because their availability is always next year or the year after, no matter how many years back you talk about them. The cost remains high, and it’s got a fixed-location utility. T-Mobile can use UMA to give people free calls at 8,500 locations in the U.S. in addition to home. Sprint can give people…better reception at home. So we’ll see if the quality issue combined with a Vonage-like pricing plan is enough to get people to give up landlines. Since people still need broadband, which is often coupled or bundled with landline or voice service, there’s a question there about whether femtocells are thus compelling enough, too, to replace that.
Google puts money into Ubiquisys: The search giant was part of a $25m round of financing. Femtocells use licensed frequencies to act as tiny cell base stations in homes and offices, with voice and data backhauled over a customer’s own broadband connection. The investment is interesting in light of Google’s intent to bid in the 700 MHz advanced wireless auction in the U.S., for which rules are still be nailed down.
Peter Judge reports at Techworld that femtocells, cell base stations for the home, are still far from deployment, but moving along: Femtocells have been two-years-away technology for some time. Rather, the technology is well understood: a cellular carrier can give its customers broadband-backhauled base stations that use licensed frequencies the carrier controls. The broadband may be unpredictable—just like with VoIP—but there’s no issue with interference as there is with UMA (unlicensed mobile access) when Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or other devices are contending for spectrum.
But Judge notes that while vendors have femtocells on offer, carriers don’t have them in live trials yet. At a femtocell conference, he reports on a lot of talk about standards and operator-oriented control tools. There are a lot of issues to be settled, such as will a femtocell allow any user nearby or just the one paying for the broadband? Does their use break ISP agreements on services carried, part of the net neutrality debate?
ABI Research predicted 35m femtocells in use by 2011, but others are dubious, including myself. UMA is a “best-availbility” technology that might wind up being good enough—and which could cost carriers a lot less to rll out to users. Femtocells costs are still quite high compared to comparable Wi-Fi networking equipment, even though femtocells will have lots of advantages for voice users.
RadioFrame has been working on femtocells for eight years, but haven’t sold a one yet: The technology of a femtocell, a pint-sized cellular network transceiver that plugs into home broadband, would allow a cell carrier to extend its network using its licensed frequencies into a home or office. Office buildings and airports already use microcells—also manufactured by RadioFrame—to ensure good signal coverage indoors. Bringing femtocells into homes would allow good reception and incremental revenue for carriers.
Femtocells face competition from unlicensed mobile access (UMA), which appears to have a headstart, despite the fact that UMA requires new handsets that mix cell and Wi-Fi (or sometimes Bluetooth) in a single phone. Femtocell-based calling wouldn’t require that a user change their handset at all. However, RadioFrame says it needs to get costs down to $150 for a femtocell to make it cost effective.
UMA has gotten a leg up through BT’s Fusion deloyment in the UK, although the early numbers there aren’t promising yet, but that might have something to do with only first-generation UMA handsets being available. T-Mobile will reportedly roll out UMA from its Washington State-only offering now to the whole US next month. The Wi-Fi Alliance is pushing UMA because they have a couple different standards that improve voice quality and battery life that they’ve been working closely with converged handset makers to adopt, as well as consumer and corporate Wi-Fi gateway manufacturers.
RadioFrame most likely is sitting on a pile of patents, too, which might be part of their long-term strategy: if femtocells take off, they can net licensing dollars as well as direct sales of their own equipment.
The Journal looks at Unlicensed Mobile Access and IMS worldwide: The article paints a very fair picture of the quality and cost of UMA, and why it’s typically being used today (for better indoor coverage). There’s a nice description of the evolution of cellular towards IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem), and some notes about how people can make phone calls over Wi-Fi from some smartphones using third-party software, a potential challenge to both UMA and IMS’s voice side.
Interesting that BT acknowledges the cheapness of handling calls over Wi-Fi and broadband that the customer separately pays for: they offer four UMA minutes as the equivalent of one cell minute in their calling plans, which conforms to what I’ve been told about call completion costs (4 or 5 cents a minute for cell, 1 cent a minute for UMA/broadband).
Femotcells are mentioned briefly, but the Journal says their availability isn’t near-term.
The company’s option will allow existing GSM and 3G handsets to connect, with backhaul by broadband: Femtocells are an increasingly interesting option for improving in-home access. One strategy is dual-mode handsets that use Wi-Fi in the home for calls; the other is femtocells in which the existing GSM standard is used. In either case, backhaul is from customer-provided broadband. Ericsson’s system supports Wi-Fi and DSL for backhaul.