Small cell, big gain

Interest in femtocells is growing rapidly among mobile operators who are looking for new ways to manage the increasing data demands on their networks.

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Small cell, big gain Bouverot says femtocells can benefit fixed and mobile operators.
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By  Nithyasree Trivikram Published  March 15, 2011

Bouverot says that with the right agreement between a fixed and mobile operator, there can be a win-win situation between the operators offering services using femtocells. Citing an example, Bouverot says: “Vodafone, as our customer in the UK, has deployed huge quantities of femtocells. The operator doesn’t have a fixed network, so they are using DSL and other fixed broadband connections that are coming from other service providers offering services in the country, and the femtocell technology supports that quite well.

“While the mobile operator will benefit from femtocells by billing the user and getting additional revenues; the fixed operator will benefit because there will be more traffic and revenue on the fixed network,” he adds.

In terms of the femtocell units, there are low and medium powered units which cover apartments and houses; a bigger version which is more powerful and has higher capacity is designed mainly for small businesses; and the ‘metrocell’ which is a small outdoor unit that can be used to cover public areas such as shopping malls and airports. “All these three types of femtocells will be more or less commercially released at the same time,” says Bouverot.

While voice services can be offered anywhere by 2G networks, premium services such as high speed data is the main driver behind femtocells. Younes says that the promise operators usually offer in terms of high speed data breaks down when it gets into the home due to the difficulty of indoor penetration.

Bouverot says that femtocells enable operators to offer bundled services between femtocell and attractive tariffs such as a ‘home zone’ concept that encourages more traffic on the wireless network by providing some favourable rates for mobile users when they uses indoor coverage. “These kinds of offerings will definitely encourage premium usage of data on the wireless network,” he adds.

Spectrum management

By design, femtocells are limited to offering indoor area coverage and operate within the parameters set by operators. Hatem Bamatraf, senior vice president, network development technology, Du, says: “For femtocells, there will be a single frequency that will be provided for an operator to work on the entire network. Hence, there will be no issues regarding interference as the 3G technology itself allows you to have single frequency with different codes. That’s why we call it wide-band CDMA, which is a code division rather than a frequency division. Usually the telecom regulatory authority (TRA) gives a licence for an operator, and they also manage the spectrum so that there is no interference with other service providers.

“Femtocells work based on network latent, a feature that allows the femtocell to adjust and transmit power to minimise interference levels between the neighbouring femtocells,” says Younes.

However, Bouverot says: “We recommend operators to have a dedicated carrier for femtocells so that there is no issue of interference between the macro layer and the femto layer. This is something which is not available everywhere, and in some cases, there is scarcity of frequencies for carriers.”

Residential charges

With mobile operators offering attractive packages for home consumers, femtocells could pose a risk for fixed-line operators.

Younes says: “There will definitely be a threat for fixed operators where mobile operators offer attractive packages at the home front to make it more attractive for consumers. Some of the mobile operators being aggressive in offering free home services. This is a way to retain customers on ‘minute charge’ and at the same time, compete with fixed operators. So a service provider who has both fixed and mobile licenses should be very careful about it.

“If you take the UAE, for example, where both of the operators offer fixed as well as mobile services, femtocell offerings could compete with their own fixed services. Instead, these operators will be offering some kind of bundle or package services mixing the fixed and mobile use,” he adds.

“While a few operators use it for indoor coverage improvements, most of them are positioning it as a new service with a CPE at home. With a CPE at home, the operator can benefit by offering it as packages,” says Younes. This way, Younes says that the operator can make the end-user pay for the CPE initially, then subsidise it, and later make it part of the package.

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