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MWC Preview: Femtos Go Macro

Femtocells, the small home base stations, are going to be big in Barcelona again this year, despite the slower than expected adoption in 2009.

Since last year's Mobile World Congress, the nascent home base-station industry has had some high-profile commercial service launches from the likes of AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), NTT Docomo Inc. (NYSE: DCM), and Vodafone UK . Some big-name operators offer femto services now, but the deployments are small in scale. In total, there are just 10 commercial femtocell services in operation worldwide. (See Vodafone Revs Femto Engine, France Fires Up Femtocells, AT&T on Track for Femto Launch, China Gets Femto Fever, and DoCoMo to Upgrade Its Femtos.)

This year, the hot femto talk that'll be as spicy as the patatas bravas is expected to be about the potential to take the small base stations out of the home or office and onto the streets to boost data network capacity in the macro network.

Femtos that can be deployed outside -- sometimes called metro femtos or greater femtos -- have been mooted in the context of Long Term Evolution (LTE), which many believe will require a new radio access network design made up of much smaller cells than today's 3G macro networks. But now the idea appears to be spreading to 3G networks. (See Backhaul Clouds Metro Femto Vision Vodafone Dreams of Metro Femto, and Operators Eye LTE Metro Femtos.)

In Barcelona next week, startup AirHop Communications Inc. will stage a demo with Continuous Computing Corp. and Picochip that shows off self-organized network (SON) capabilities applied to a 3G small-cell network. (See 4G Startup Revs LTE Automation.)

Also, femto chip startup Percello Ltd. is expected to unveil a reference design for enterprise or outdoor femtos that support up to 32 users, 21.6-Mbit/s data rates, and a coverage range of up to 2 kilometers.

It will be interesting to hear what operators think about femtos for the great outdoors and whether they think the proposition can cost effectively boost 3G network capacity. One key issue with the concept is backhaul, because getting low-cost, high-capacity links to lots of small cell sites has yet to be resolved.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…
Expect to see lots of wild and wacky demos in Barcelona next week from home base-station vendors for all of the things you can do with a femto when it's at home or in the office. (See Femtocells Kick Apps.)

  • Ubiquisys Ltd. will demo a femto that can actually print documents. Well, sort of. The vendor will show how users can print documents from an Android-based smartphone via a network of 3G femtocells, using the NGPA mobile printing application from Software Imaging.

  • One of Airvana Inc. (Nasdaq: AIRV)'s demos will connect 16 mobile phones with speakers to a femtocell, streaming music to them all to create a "femto orchestra wireless symphony." [Ed. note: Or, would that be "cacophony"?] The vendor will also show a "family tablet" application using Google (Nasdaq: GOOG)'s Nexus One device, which will enable family members to interact remotely with a touchscreen tablet device via the femtocell.

  • ip.access Ltd. just released a femtocell developer kit for its 3G femto, so that system integrators can develop applications for the femtos. For example, femtos can be used in the test and measurement of mobile handsets or in portable small-scale networks that aid agencies can use in an emergency. The femto developer kit provides open access to the femto technology so that these kinds of applications can be created.

    And, in case you missed it, here's a roundup of recent femto news:

    — Michelle Donegan, European Editor, Unstrung


    For all the best news, views, pictures, and video reports before, during, and after MWC 2010, check out our Mobile World Congress Show Site.


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