Femtocells still not ready for primetime in the enterprise
It was 2008 when wireless industry folks declared the year to be year of the femtocell. It is now 2010, and the femtocell industry is finally heating up with lots of femtocell-related announcements, but adoption in the enterprise is still a long way away.
Femtocells — best known as small base stations in homes or businesses that improve wireless coverage and backhaul wireless data traffic — have so far been marketed by operators in the U.S. as a way to bolster coverage in residential areas. AT&T, which offers the Microcell, has set its sights on the enterprise market to integrate IP PBXs with femtocells.
This week, Wisconsin-based rural service provider Mosaic Telecom announced it is offering what it calls “guaranteed access to 3G services” to homes and offices via a standardized femtocell network solution from Nokia Siemens Networks and Airvana.
Late last week, the Femto Forum and the WiMAX Forum announced they published the first standard to enable WiMAX femtocells. That means vendors will be able to begin building compatible equipment based on the 802.16e standard and profiles. The specs include a security framework and enables WiMAX networks to support a large number of access points via standard commercial IPSec-based gateways.
The WiMAX Forum is expected to begin certification of the devices in early 2011.
Today, the Femto Forum announced its second femtocell plugfest that will take place at the end of the year to focus on how effectively the Broadband Forum’s femtocell management standard, which the Femto Forum has adopted, facilitates interoperability between products from different vendors.
Clearly, femtocell standards and ecosystems are beginning to come together. There is no doubt that femtocells will play a large role in the enterprise market, because businesses will benefit from these wireless signal extenders by saving on costs and improving efficiency. But there are still some critical pieces missing that likely will keep the enterprise sidelined. Femtocells in the enterprise need plug-and-play capability, a fact recognized in the femtocell community. Subscribers must be able to plug in the device and have it automatically configure itself and avoid interference with both the macro cellular network and other femtocells. The enterprise doesn’t want more services that require professional installations; they might as well go with a distributed antenna system (DAS), if that is the case.
The self-organizing capability isn’t part of a standard, so enterprise customers are unable to mix and match femtocells from various vendors. In fact, many elements aren’t standardized yet. Peter Jarich, vice president with Current Analysis, recently told me that, while there is no shortage of femtocell solutions built for the enterprise, there also is no agreement on the appropriate architecture for enterprise femtocell networks. For instance, standardized ways of using a centralized controller have not been established.
For the WiMAX femtocell standard, devices would include self-organization network (SON) capabilities to enable automatic configuration, but future revisions will update SON capabilities to include automatic interference management among femtocells and macro base stations.
Moreover, standardized ways of integrating the PBX into the femtocell have not been established either.
It looks like 2010 — or 2011, for that matter — still may not be the year for the femtocell … at least in the enterprise.
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