Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Dean Bubley's Disruptive Wireless: residential picocells... it's going to be a while yet

Dean Bubley posts at his Disruptive Wireless about using picocells "for low-cost use in homes and offices, rather than the more "infrastructure grade" base stations announced by various competitors around 3GSM."

Bubley writes that he has "heard the home picocell (I've heard the term "femtocell") concept mentioned a lot recently. Often, price points in the range $100-300 are mooted - essentially in the same range as a home gateway. While I can certainly appreciate the attraction of these devices, aiming to compete with WiFi based home VoIP and dual-mode solutions, I am uncertain about the viability of the business model for carriers, as well as some other technological issues." He then offers some reasons why:

  1. As with UMA, I can only see opportunities where the femtocell is integrated with an operator-provided ADSL/cable gateway (which will also need WiFi in it for commercial acceptability). Otherwise all the same issues with firewalls, integrating with 3rd-party routers etc will emerge, getting the box to "play nicely" with the PC and so on will emerge. Given these devices are unlikely to ship in numbers until late 2007 at the earliest, they will need to work around a huge number of existing "legacy" devices - or else carriers will need to persuade people to bin them and start again.
  2. There are various problems with managing the radio planning, especially if the service is so successful that operators end up with 100s of customers - and therefore cells - in a small area. This will be exacerbated by the impossibility of getting people to position the boxes in specific places in the home - some will be on the floor, some near windows, some by metal filing cabinets and so on.
  3. These femtocells will be "single operator". I wonder how many households will be prepared to standardise on just one mobile carrier. Not most families - maybe one parent has a company-provided mobile, and one kid has a cartoon-branded MVNO phone, and another gets another prepay phone as an Xmas present from someone. Student/shared households are also unworkable: "great room for rent, suit young professional, all bills included, must be vegetarian and use Vodafone".
Bubley concludes with:
Maybe I'm wrong, but even on a cursory glance, this looks to be another of those great FMC concept technologies, where the devil is in the detail. Which would also explain why the greatest amount of noise about femtocells is emanating from small, very tech-savvy but boffin-tastic (and mainly British) companies like ip.access, and its emerging competitors Ubiquisys and 3waynetworks. Discussions I've had with major infrastructure vendors have generally been more skeptical of the home femtocell opportunity, although Motorola was a bit more positive.