Femtocells – Making Convergence a Reality

Both fixed and wireless service providers are looking for a technology option which helps them get closer to the customer, and converging networks and services offers that potential by increasing levels of interaction with the customer. And one of the hottest new technologies, Femtocells, has emerged as the technology that makes convergence a genuine possibility.

About the size of a hardback book, femtocells replicate the essential elements of a mobile network and connect to a broadband network to route voice and data traffic. Mobile phone users connect with the femtocell for ‘five bar’ voice reception and data transfer speeds that are only limited by the fixed connection. Mobile operators, like O2, Vodafone and Orange are all looking at femtocells to provide the compelling mobile services (video, music etc) consumers now demand and to avoid their networks collapsing under the volume of traffic being generated.

Deploying femtocells enables traditionally fixed-line providers and mobile operators to extend their product offerings into the wireless and fixed space respectively through joint ventures. These partnerships will increasingly see this kind of convergence as an integral part of bundles, communications and entertainment services. By linking up through femtocells, service providers can ensure consumers are able to enjoy their video, telephone and high-speed Internet services wherever, whenever, and however, they want, both inside and outside their homes. Additionally, the high quality of voice and real-time data services, combined with the lower cost of delivery, make femtocells an attractive and realistic technology option for operators looking to offer converged services.

As with any new technology, femtocells present a considerable opportunity for the early adopters, along with numerous technical challenges. While carriers in Europe and North America are moving forward steadily with their technical evaluations of femtocell technology, and we have just seen the first commercial offering by Sprint-Nextel in North America, carriers are still being cautious by extending the assessment time for femtocells prior to full scale deployment.

Testing is underway, both in labs in and the field, but the lack of uniform femtocell implementations and formal specifications, coupled with the complexity of 3G/4G networks, make the deployment and performance testing of femtocell solutions difficult to carry out. This is further compounded by the fact there are limited commercial test solutions that can emulate the hundreds of thousands of femtocells and mobile clients that will make up a next generation femtocell-enabled network. And as James Brunson, director of Converged Network Solutions at Spirent Communications, commented, one of the biggest challenges in deploying femtocells arise from the ability to seamlessly integrate with service providers’ packet core and RF networks.

So while the industry waits for standards to be drafted and ratified by numerous industry bodies, Spirent is already enabling service providers and network equipment vendors to validate the performance of the network infrastructure that will support millions of femtocells in the future.