Mobile masts look set to enter British households this year, with the networks looking for low-cost methods to bring high-speed mobile coverage to consumers.
At the centre of this trend are ‘femtocells’, the mini masts which have been tested and trialled by several networks in recent months.
Femtocells promise to increase indoor coverage of 3G networks and enhance the user experience of mobile broadband and content services at home.
Mobile networks are already battling with fixed-line network providers supplying broadband and Wi-Fi into the home, with both mobile and fixed-line providers trying to win over customers with both high-quality, high-speed wireless broadband and voice calls.
With USB dongles flying off the shelves and services like mobile TV and music downloads becoming increasingly popular, the ability to connect to a 3G network anywhere becomes more important.
Almost a third of mobile usage happens at home, and while most of it is voice, data usage in the home is on the increase. With internet access via dongles costing the same as a home broadband connection, this could soon become the primary method of accessing the internet for consumers and businesses.
The current problem is that 3G coverage is often very poor indoors. This doesn’t affect voice services, since making a call sounds as good in 2G as it does in 3G; however, when it comes to the internet or TV, speeds and bandwidth matter, and 3G becomes necessary. This is what femtocell technology aims to address by providing better 3G coverage inside buildings.
Femtocells also potentially offer a cheaper way to extend better quality voice coverage to homes in rural areas.
T-Mobile and O2 spearheading femtocell trials
Vodafone, T-Mobile and O2 are all currently testing femtocell technology.
The trials are looking at how feasible a broad femtocell campaign would be, how much they would enhance services, and what consumer reaction would be.
T-Mobile is starting what it describes as ‘a friendly consumer trial’ in the second quarter of this year. Emin Gurdenli, head of technology at T-Mobile, says: ‘In the first instance it’s about coverage, providing coverage for people that don’t have it...we also want to see what else customers would use it for. It’s [mainly] for data rather than voice.’
T-Mobile’s venture capital arm recently invested in femtocell manufacturer Ubiquisys which is also backed by Google.
O2 also has a femtocell trial underway. John Carvalho, head of core network innovation at O2, says: ‘We are in the proof of concept phase. We are testing services like SMS, MMS, and data and music downloads.
‘Femtocells will make existing services easier to use and it could drive new services,’ he adds. He explains that an example of a new service that could be born out of femtocells is one that lets you know when your kids get home. An SMS could be sent to a user’s phone once their kids’ phones connect to the femtocell.
US operator Sprint was the first to look at femtocells. It ended its trial around one year ago, and is planning for a commercial launch this year.
Business models and the potential financial impact that the technology could have for operators are still up in the air. ‘It’s very early days,’ Gurdenli says.
Consumers are expected to make a contribution for a femtocell, but operators recognise that for femtocells to become mass market they would have to be priced around the same as Wi-Fi routers.
The UK may see operators launching femtocells this year too. ‘There will be limited deployment of femtocells this year. T-Mobile may be one of those, but this will depend on the trial,’ Gurdenli predicts.
However, both Gurdenli and Carvahlo believe femtocells will see mass-market deployment next year, but add that this depends on the price of the devices as well as the ability for consumers to buy them on the high street.
What are femtocells?
Femtocells are effectively mini mobile masts. They are designed to bolster 3G network coverage inside buildings where the signal is usually very weak. This enables mobile operators to offer higher quality and higher performance network coverage cost effectively. The mobile phone connects to the femtocell, which then connects to the main cellular network via a cable or DSL internet connection.
The operators’ plans
3 has conducted lab and field trials of femtocells and is currently monitoring the market.
O2 is currently testing femtocell technology and potential cases for
the technology. The consumer trial involves 50 households but will increase to 500 during the next few months.
Orange is currently assessing the business case for femtocells.
T-Mobile is starting a consumer trial in Q2, with some tens of households installed with a femtocell in the UK, Germany and Poland.
Vodafone is testing femtocells on a group level, with technical trials taking place in Spain in conjunction with Alcatel-Lucent and Huawei.