Despite the hype that begun in 2007 over femtocells and their ability to extend coverage into buildings, the market is just beginning to take off this year and vendors — along with other advocates of the technology — say an enterprise version is on tap this year.

Indeed, new research from Informa Telecoms & Media indicates that femtocell technology is experiencing the initial signs of maturity, with several top-tier operators deploying the technology using a variety of business models. Mobile operators around the world have commenced nine commercial launches of femtocell technology, along with several ongoing trials.

While the consumer market remains a significant focus for operators, the value proposition offered by pushing the technology into the enterprise can't be ignored, analysts say. Enterprises benefit from these wireless signal extenders by saving costs and improving efficiency. At the same time, femtocells give operators a tool to push their services further into these high-paying customers' premises. They long have searched for ways to target the enterprise with managed mobility solutions.

"The acceleration and interest in enterprise femtocells have been big themes for us," said Simon Saunders, chair of the Femto Forum. "In the coming months we are going to see operators coming forward with an enterprise proposition that can be supported by today's home products."

Today, Airwalk Communications announced an on-premise enterprise femtocell that combines both wireless voice and data functionality via a dual-mode CDMA 1x and 1xEV-DO platform. Alcatel-Lucent last month introduced an enterprise femtocell that includes 3G and High Speed Packet Access (HSPA) radio access and self-organizing network features that enable plug-and-play connectivity and avoid interference with the macro network, as well as other femtocells. Meanwhile, Airvana has introduced its HubBub high-capacity femtocell for the enterprise that can scale to as many as 24 users, along with an enterprise architecture that leverages inter-femto connectivity into the network as well. Other software and hardware vendors also are focusing on the space.

Could this be a major breakthrough for in-building communications? Already, many municipalities have passed ordinances that require building owners to provide in-building communications for first responders. To meet this requirement, some building owners have turned to distributed antenna systems (DAS), which can cost an enterprise several thousand dollars.

Much of that cost has to do with the inherent complexity of the system, which requires expensive equipment, engineering and testing. Operators generally are unwilling to subsidize those exorbitant amounts to extend their signals into buildings — even if it would mean extending the reach of their services — while many building owners have balked at the price.

That's why enterprise femtocells are so promising. Operators may very well be willing to subsidize these less-expensive, mini-base stations in order to bring their services deeper into the enterprise. Future enhancements will include integration with the PBX to enable all sorts of new calling features. Eventually, data services will be thrown into the mix as well. Consequently, it’s very possible that we’ll see future systems that combine public-safety frequencies and commercial frequencies, and which operators are willing to subsidize.

While vendors aren’t discussing such a possibility because enterprise femtocells are so nascent, they are willing to talk about the possibility that femtocells, in the not-so-distant future, may come in dual-mode versions featuring LTE and 3G technologies. That’s because LTE is fast approaching the theoretical maximum information transfer rate (known as Shannon's Law) and further improvements only will be possible by rolling out smaller cells such as femtocells. Of course, all of this will be good for public safety in the long run, given that LTE is the sector’s technology platform of choice for its broadband network of the future.

How fast femtocells move and mature in the enterprise depends on how aggressive and creative operators are willing to be. If it's a market that shows significant growth, we could soon see a number of players, including DAS vendors that already enable public-safety frequencies on their systems, come to market to meet the needs and requirements of the enterprise.

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