This week's CTIA Wireless conference may be something of a coming-out party for femtocells, the tiny cellular base stations that can send voice and data traffic onto inexpensive broadband links, but the devices eventually may look different from what most people expect.
The Femto Forum will sponsor a special showcase on the CTIA show floor in Las Vegas and host a roundtable on Wednesday afternoon. The industry group will also give details of a "plugfest" being held next week in southern France to prove interoperability among femtocell equipment from different vendors. The Forum expects more than 20 manufacturers to participate, testing out gear that was built to standards adopted last April by the 3GPP (Third-Generation Partnership Project). If the vendors can prove interoperability, that will be a step toward letting carriers and network equipment builders mix and match technology from many vendors, potentially driving costs down and femtocell adoption up, said Simon Saunders, chairman of the Femto Forum.
Also this week, AT&T is expected to say it will offer femtocells nationwide after conducting trials in several states beginning last September. Sprint Nextel's Airave device is already in full commercial deployment, and Verizon Wireless has said it plans to offer femtocells soon after it launches commercial LTE (Long-Term Evolution) mobile broadband service. Vodafone, NTT DoCoMo, and China Unicom also offer devices.
Though coverage complaints are as old as cellular technology, the recent explosion in mobile data use makes femtocells a timely innovation.
"For the iPhone users who are really frustrated over being dropped all the time, the femtocell may be the answer," said IDC analyst Godfrey Chua.
Though about 60 carriers around the world are conducting trials of femtocells, there have only been nine commercial deployments, according to the Femto Forum. This is for a technology that some observers thought would be widespread before the end of 2008. But vendors and service providers have had a hard time figuring out how to price and market dedicated household femtocells for consumers, as well as facing technical problems that were bigger than expected.
Now, some vendors and industry analysts say it may be other types of femtocells that ultimately deliver on the promise of the technology. These may include femtocells built in to consumer Wi-Fi routers, ones that boost coverage inside medium-sized enterprises, and outdoor units that form the leading edge of LTE deployments.
A femtocell is smaller than a microcell or picocell, two types of base stations that are often used to boost coverage in buildings. It is also different because it has a built-in RNC (radio network control) element. Usually, RNCs are located in the carrier's data center. Having an integrated one allows the femtocell to link in to any sort of wired broadband, such as a cable modem or DSL. The devices typically can cover about 5,000 square feet (465 square meters) and serve several mobile phone users in a household. The owner of the femtocell can create a "whitelist" of phones allowed on the device.