Will Franks - femtocell pioneer

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30 September 2009

3G Femtocells: Who Makes What?

It’s great to see AT&T start marketing their 3G (WCDMA) femtocell, the 3G Microcell. Unlike the 2G femto offerings from Sprint and Verizon in the US, this not only promises a premium voice experience but also full speed 24/7 mobile broadband.

Following the launches from SoftBank, StarHub and Vodafone, the AT&T Microcell is a clear signal that the femto market is taking off across the world.

And on the face of it, there are around 20 3G femto vendors competing to supply operators with 3G femtocells. But that’s only half the story.

Firstly, you can’t always go by the brand you see on the box. For example, the AT&T Microcell is supplied by Cisco, but the femtocell inside the Cisco device was developed by picocell/femtocell developer ip.Access.

Secondly, the only true measure of a femtocell product in this hyped-up market is a commercial launch. Taking this measure, there are only four 3G femtocell vendors in the market today (in alphabetical order):
- Alcatel-Lucent at Vodafone, UK
- Huawei at StarHub , Singapore
- Ip.Access at AT&T, USA
- Ubiquisys at SoftBank, Japan.

There are some interesting similarities here. All of these companies have been doing intensive femtocell development for at least 3 years, and all have been working with their operator customers for at least two years. They also have in common 3G Radio Access and Core Network expertise as well as significant knowledge and experience working with mobile handsets.

This expertise is vital, because femtocells are extensions of the Carrier’s Macro Network. They are an integral part of a highly complex, high-reliability carrier-grade network with all that brings in terms of capabilities, features, network IOT, management systems, handset IOT and cognitive radio functions. The result is a software system that presents an extremely high barrier to market entry for any prospective femtocell vendor, which is why there are so few in reality. It is also a reason why no femtocell reference design has ever made it to market, despite having being around for years.

But femtocells are also consumer products, and they have to meet the demanding volume and price points of this industry. This is a well trodden path by home gateway manufacturers and the component companies that supply them – it just takes time.

There are other 3G femtocells under development, but today it’s all about four industry pioneers.