Small cell, big gain

Interest in femtocells is growing rapidly among mobile operators
Femtocell technology offers telcos a valuable means of handling data traffic.
Femtocell technology offers telcos a valuable means of handling data traffic.

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While there has been much hype around femtocells, there are now signs of growing femtocell rollouts by mobile operators in the Middle East.

This is mainly due to the increased smartphone use that is putting pressure on operators to fill holes in mobile coverage, increase the network’s capacity to handle increasing mobile data traffic, and offer value-added services to customers in a cost-effective manner.

Fady Younes, client director for UAE at Cisco, says: “Currently, operators are undergoing femtocell trials in the Middle East, and the recent surge in smartphone use such as iPhone is posing as the main driver for femtocell pickup in this region.”

Mostly looked at from a home perspective, these small cellular access points are deployed at the consumers’ premises that use fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) IP networks or ethernet connections to provide the mobile user with enhanced indoor coverage, with sufficient bandwidth for access to services such as mobile TV. While mobile operators have mainly looked at femtocells for homes, the trend is changing to also cover the enterprise space.

“In terms of focus for femtocells, it will be more towards homes, which will be later rolled out for small and medium businesses and enterprises as well,” says Younes. He adds that the initial stage will follow with more integration between those customer premises equipment (CPE) to offer more value-added services for customers.

“Femtocell is not about providing CPE at home only. It’s about the end-to-end experience of having quality of services and security as well. You need to have the same experience whether you are connecting from your mobile, your car, at home, or from your office. That’s where the femtocell component of the network comes in, to which all these are connected - the 3G network and the femtocell to the femto gateway,” Younes says.

Nicolas Bouverot, vice president for Middle East, Alcatel-Lucent, says that there is strong deployment of femtocells in the Middle East, while Africa hasn’t seen any significant femtocell deployments.

“In the ME region, we are deploying femtocells for both UAE operators, Etisalat, and Du, and also for Vodafone in Qatar. There will be commercial femtocell rollouts between all the three operators in the region by this year end,” he says.

Who benefits?

In 2014, some 114 million mobile users are expected to access mobile networks through femtocells during that year, states an Informa Telecoms & Media study. From a consumer’s point of view, femtocells provide improved indoor mobile coverage and enhanced bandwidth capacity for a better home experience. However, Younes says that femtocells help operators more than consumers in reducing churn and gaining marketshare. “The exponential growth of data on operators’ networks is compelling operators to grow their standard 3G network to such type of requirement, which also leads to large scale investment in capex and opex. This is definitely something that operators don’t want to do. They introduce femtocells to have a kind of linear growth in their capex and opex, and to offload their 3G networks. By having the femto access points at homes, the operator can offload the network, especially the transport parts of it,” Younes says.

As Bouverot explains: “If you stay at the macro level, it would require significant additional investments and optimisation efforts to fix the networks in those areas where the signal strength is weak. Whereas, with femtocells, it can be done in a quick and cost-effective manner.

“The other aspect is the offloading of the macro network traffic in areas generating lot of traffic that increases the overall network efficiency. If you put femtocells in those high traffic networks, the femtocell is backhauled through a DSL or GPON line. Here, femtocells take off the traffic load from the hotspot and put it on to the fixed network, thus releasing some capacity on the macro 3G wireless network, which provides better coverage and user experience for all users within the cell.

Younes says that many operators in the MEA region are starting to rollout HSPA+ and LTE networks, and all these are clearly targeted at high-speed data delivery. “By providing proper coverage for consumers inside the house and with the capacity that operators are sending, femtocells really fill the gap and the challenges of operators in delivering better indoor coverage,” he says, adding that femtocells offer an economical means for operators to invest in their 3G networks. “However, it all depends on the operator’s business model,” he adds.

Younes says that Cisco is “heavily involved” in some of the femtocell trials in the MEA region. “Currently, there are three femtocell trials happening in the Gulf, and I believe some of the operators will be launching femtocell services by end of 2011,” he says.

Regulating femtocells

Though there are no specific regulations concerning femtocells in the MEA region, Younes says that there are some regulations being updated with regard to the ‘backhaul network’ due to the enormous growth of data on networks. “Fixed networks serve as a backbone for femtocells. A mobile only operator has to rely on fixed network operator in offering the femtocell service as ‘over the top’. These mobile only operators might be demanding some kind of regulations in areas such as transmission-blocking to protect and also provide quality in their networks,” says Younes. “With the network quality having an effect on customer experience, I believe at some point in time, regulators have to apply regulations on the broadband network chain,” he adds.

Bouverot says that with the right agreement between a fixed and mobile operator, there can be a win-win situation between the operators offering services using femtocells. Citing an example, Bouverot says: “Vodafone, as our customer in the UK, has deployed huge quantities of femtocells. The operator doesn’t have a fixed network, so they are using DSL and other fixed broadband connections that are coming from other service providers offering services in the country, and the femtocell technology supports that quite well.

“While the mobile operator will benefit from femtocells by billing the user and getting additional revenues; the fixed operator will benefit because there will be more traffic and revenue on the fixed network,” he adds.

In terms of the femtocell units, there are low and medium powered units which cover apartments and houses; a bigger version which is more powerful and has higher capacity is designed mainly for small businesses; and the ‘metrocell’ which is a small outdoor unit that can be used to cover public areas such as shopping malls and airports. “All these three types of femtocells will be more or less commercially released at the same time,” says Bouverot.

While voice services can be offered anywhere by 2G networks, premium services such as high speed data is the main driver behind femtocells. Younes says that the promise operators usually offer in terms of high speed data breaks down when it gets into the home due to the difficulty of indoor penetration.

Bouverot says that femtocells enable operators to offer bundled services between femtocell and attractive tariffs such as a ‘home zone’ concept that encourages more traffic on the wireless network by providing some favourable rates for mobile users when they uses indoor coverage. “These kinds of offerings will definitely encourage premium usage of data on the wireless network,” he adds.

Spectrum management

By design, femtocells are limited to offering indoor area coverage and operate within the parameters set by operators. Hatem Bamatraf, senior vice president, network development technology, Du, says: “For femtocells, there will be a single frequency that will be provided for an operator to work on the entire network. Hence, there will be no issues regarding interference as the 3G technology itself allows you to have single frequency with different codes. That’s why we call it wide-band CDMA, which is a code division rather than a frequency division. Usually the telecom regulatory authority (TRA) gives a licence for an operator, and they also manage the spectrum so that there is no interference with other service providers.

“Femtocells work based on network latent, a feature that allows the femtocell to adjust and transmit power to minimise interference levels between the neighbouring femtocells,” says Younes.

However, Bouverot says: “We recommend operators to have a dedicated carrier for femtocells so that there is no issue of interference between the macro layer.

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