How to win friends and influence people with femtocells

OVUM VIEW

Summary

Vodafone UK has announced that it will conduct a trial of an outdoor mobile coverage solution for underserved rural communities using femtocells, but one that uses the devices in an unconventional manner. While the approach is unlikely to be of significance for more remote rural areas where providing coverage is most difficult, it will earn Vodafone some useful political capital in helping to solve a perceived problem for rural communities. However, Vodafone’s trial extends the definition of a “femtocell” beyond the currently understood convention, and illustrates the way that the network as a whole is becoming much more heterogeneous.

Femtocells are unlikely to be a solution for many rural areas

Vodafone is seeking 12 rural communities to participate in its outdoor mobile coverage trial. However, for femtocells to work, these communities will need to have broadband availability. While there are locations where broadband is available but a good mobile signal is not (and conversely, locations with a decent mobile signal but no fixed broadband), the absence of both kinds of technology tend to go together. Vodafone has already trialed its solution in the village of East Garston in West Berkshire, which is a few kilometers from the M4 motorway and relatively close to the large towns of Oxford, Swindon, and Reading. It is more an example of a place that is difficult to cover with a mobile signal for reasons of topography rather than because of its remote location.

Only the most cynical observer would draw attention to the fact that delivering better coverage to prosperous villages in relatively well-serviced areas is likely to play well with the current UK government. The move follows a party conference announcement by the Conservative chancellor that the UK’s coalition government was making a relatively small amount of money (£150m) available for extending rural cellular coverage, and several government figures have associated themselves with the initiative.

Vodafone’s decision to use open femtocells is correct but odd

Vodafone is planning to follow Softbank’s femtocell deployment in Japan by using “open” femtocells in its trial. While this means that all Vodafone customers will be able to use the coverage rather than just devices that are registered for the specific femtocells, it doesn’t mean that users of other networks will be able to access the coverage. This is a “no-brainer” for both Vodafone and the community as it is the only way to provide generally available mobile coverage. However, it further demonstrates how little this deployment has to do with femtocells as we once understood them – as a customer-deployed, limited power access-point designed for use in a private domain. In Vodafone’s trial they will be used as “metro femtocells” to provide public-area coverage as widely as possible from units that are located in public spaces such as payphone booths and telephone poles.

You say “femtocell”, I say “small cell”

The distinction between a small cell that is part of the macro network and a femtocell is not a straightforward one as our recent conversations with vendors confirm. Small cells are regularly used by operators to provide coverage in public areas, particularly inside buildings. However, much of the discussion around femtocells so far has focused on the commercial aspects of getting users to pay for their own indoor coverage, and about the technical aspects of enabling coverage elements that are not under the direct control of the operator’s network management system.

Vodafone has made a sensible decision in deploying public femtocells in its trial as more conventional types of outdoor coverage would not work in this scenario. In addition, locking in a group of prosperous customers as the only coverage in a village while positioning itself as a provider of services to the disadvantaged will be highly advantageous to Vodafone. Regardless of these factors, Vodafone’s solution illustrates the way in which the increasingly heterogeneous nature of the network is pushing the boundaries of existing terminology in the telecoms industry.

APPENDIX

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