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Proposed femtocell standard could pave way for faster deployment -- or not

NEC and Kineto Wireless have proposed a new femtocell standard in hopes of spurring development and deployment. But such a move, according to at least one analyst, might be premature for the young technology as service providers still test the products in limited markets.

NEC and Kineto Wireless have proposed a new femtocell standard in hopes of spurring development and deployment....

But such a move, according to at least one analyst, might be premature for the young technology as service providers still test the products in limited markets.

The proposal, based on the 3GPP GAN specification, would standardize the "Iu over IP"-based architecture which dictates how a receiver transmits wireless data to the networks, while leaving open the implementation of the radios that transmit the data wirelessly to phones.

Femtocells are small devices, similar to Wi-Fi access points, which consumers can plug into their broadband connection to create a small bubble of wireless connectivity, using the carrier's cellular spectrum, for mobile phones.

There were two motivations for the standard, according to Steve Shaw, associate vice president of marketing for FMC-convergence vendor Kineto. "One is to make these more consumer-oriented products, so there's more operator-choice for femtocells," he said. By standardizing how femtocells communicate with the networks, the plan is to ensure interoperability among different brands and to prevent vendor lock-in resulting from proprietary communications methods.

"The second element is that the faster we can get the industry to rally around one approach, [the sooner] we can move forward … and get more products in the market in a shorter time frame," Shaw said. The market for femtocells could potentially be huge – an In-Stat report projected 100 million users by 2011 -- but to win those users, femtocell vendors will be racing against dual-mode cell phones that can make calls over Wi-Fi.

Allen Nogee, principal wireless analyst with In-Stat, cautioned that the push for a single standard might be coming from vendors' desire for a competitive edge rather than a true market need at this stage.

"You have to realize that Sprint is the only company in the world deploying femtocells," Nogee said. "It's very early in the process. It's hard to say standards are needed, since there's only one company offering [femtocells to consumers]."

The ability to deliver firmware updates for standard compatibility, rather than requiring fundamental hardware changes, also mitigates some of the urgency for a single standard early on. When a standard does arrive, carriers can "push" the upgrade onto receivers through the Internet. Because current production volumes are so low, Nogee said, the savings associated with a standard would be minimal, and the market might be better served by having service providers trialing various standards before picking one. Nogee said that between five and seven standards were currently in use by various vendors.

"I think it's good that everybody's talking about it," he said, "but I think it's a little bit … premature until operators have their plans really in place to figure out what the standards mean to them."

Shaw said the new standard purposely left open the hardware components needed to communicate with the actual receivers in order to leave room for technical innovation and competition, which could be critical to making femtocell development profitable for vendors and could spur improved reception or ease of use.

"The back-end protocol [where the standard applies] is probably 10% of what goes into a femtocell radio," he said. "Because there is so much complexity [outside of that], it's a real area for sharp radio frequency companies to shine."

Shaw also said the NEC-Kineto standard would not be the standard for all, given the wide variety of network architectures, including a sharp division on the use of provisioning technologies like IMS.

"Even as it becomes the standard for some femtocells, [this standard] won't be the standard for CDMA," he said.

Shaw also pointed to a recent release from the U.K.-based Femto Forum, of which Kineto and NEC are both members, that called on members to "harmonise the integration of femtocells" into networks through consensus on an interoperable standard.

"I think this actually has a really good opportunity to become a pretty solid standard without a lot of variation," he said. "There's a lot of room to differentiate and rise above in terms of service ability and technical ability."

Shaw said the standard, submitted to the 3GPP for consideration, would probably be voted upon by that body's members by the end of this year.

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