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Opinion: U Mobile Femtocell probably a mistake, partnered Alcatel-Lucent

While French-based Alcatel-Lucent admitted that it hasn’t been honest in doing business and recently have been penalised, U Mobile says that it is confident with this company.

Last week, U Mobile announced that it has partnered with Alcatel-Lucent to trial the Femtocell technology.

But the issue of partnering with Alcatel-Lucent is totally a different story, U Mobile is probably taking a major risk by moving towards Femtocell.

What is Femtocell?- A cellular hotspot(Similar to WiFi hotspot)

A femtocell is a small cellular base station, typically designed for use in a home or small business. It connects to the service provider’s network via broadband (such as Streamyx). Allows service providers to extend service coverage indoors, especially where coverage is poor. Typically, Femtocell supports 2 to 4 active mobile phones in a residential setting, and 8 to 16 active mobile phones in enterprise settings.-Wikipedia

Femtocell has been around for years but it hasn’t been popular and deployment has been slow around the world.

Below is a summary of some issues & questions that are related to Femtocell:

  • Billing Issues- Customers need to buy the Femtocell unit from U Mobile, pay a certain monthly fee and at the same time maintain their Streamyx(or other fixed broadband service) at home. In this case, wouldn’t it be unfair for customers to pay the same rate for voice and data while within their own Femtocell coverage?
  • Roaming issues- The beauty of Femtocell allows it to be small and can be carried and installed anywhere as long as customers have a fixed broadband connection. In this case, U Mobile customers could carry their Femtocell unit while traveling overseas, install it at their hotel room and make calls at local rate using the “newly created” U Mobile hotspot. Fantastic right? But cellular spectrum are licensed and using Femtocell in other countries are illegal. How would U Mobile deal with this?
  • Interference issue- A major technical problem in Femtocell deployment. Since spectrums are limited, how would Femtocell not interfere with the wide cellular network or the macro/picocell network when everyone in a neighborhood uses a Femtocell?
    • Femtocells interfering with base stations on the same frequency
    • Base stations interfering with femtocells on the same frequency
    • Closely spaced femtocells interfering with each other
  • Quality Issues- Since the U Mobile Femtocell would use a standard “best effort” broadband connection, who would guarantee the quality of the mobile service(voice quality..etc) when a customer is within a Femtocell network? Billing is also an issue here- do customer pay the standard voice rate for poor voice call on a broadband connection?
  • Security Issues- Similar to WiFi access point, it is possible that hackers could gain access into the femtocell and control it for their own use. If this happens, it will be hard for U Mobile themself to tell if a Femtocell network is secure. On top of that, the data that travels through the Internet remains vulnerable until it reaches the service provider’s core network.

In Malaysia, other mobile operators have already tested Femtocell, but there have been no major deployment yet.

With Femtocell,  the mobile operator could off-load their network traffic to the Internet and at the same time deploy less indoor base stations.

While femtocells can give major advantages in terms of coverage improvements for a comparatively low cost, it could also cause more problems to the customers and the service provider if it is not properly offered and deployed.

I hope U Mobile is doing the right thing for its customers.

Press Release from U Mobile below:

Kuala Lumpur, 17 March 2011 – In October 2010, U Mobile was the first operator to offer a 42Mbps wireless broadband service in Malaysia. Today, U Mobile announces another first as it enters into a partnership with Alcatel Lucent to pilot the femtocell technology with its customers to commercially launch the service thereafter.

Femtocell is a low power wireless access points that operate in license spectrum to connect standard mobile devices to a mobile operation’s network using broadband connection. The femtocell technology complements the familiar 3G wireless macro and other large cell variances. It is different from Wi-Fi access points as a femtocell acts more like a signal repeater extending the 3G signal to the home, businesses and public areas.

In a nutshell, femtocell technology enhances the network quality, expands the coverage and therefore delivers to better user experiences overall. Femtocell can be deployed specifically to solve some of the challenges that a 3G operator faces such as poor coverage in indoor areas, interferences from the neighboring base station and general RF signal pollution.

“Femto” is a prefix in the metric system denoting a factor of 10?15. It is a measurement unit smaller than the familiar nano and pico. Femtocell is a small cell technology. The femto customer device has the size as small as a memory stick and dongle; hence, it can be carried in a handbag for the ladies and briefcases for people in motion and road warriors.

There are many appealing applications that can be deployed based on this particular technology platform. Consumers can bring this small intelligent box home to enhance their voice call and wireless data usage experiences. Femtocell is just like your “personalize home base station” only servicing you, your family members or whoever you so choose. The technology at the current home version can support 4 people talking simultaneously. There are many applications that U Mobile and the technology partner are planning to introduce into to the Malaysia market including “single family number” and “family alerts”.

For the enterprises, besides boosting network quality inside the office area and the building, it also can reduce some of the telecommunication cost in a typical office environment. One of the key applications is called “small cell group” which allows users in the defined group to make calls among the members of particular cell group totally for FREE. For enterprise users, calls can be made in the office on a mobile phone instead of the common DECT phones, which enables them to have a single “enterprise” general phone number, common directory and abbreviated 3 or 4-digit dialing within the group.

“Commercial Alert” is one of the popular applications that can be deployed in a typical commercial environment such as shopping centers, malls and public places. It enables shops and building management to deliver specific alerts when one enters into the femtocell zones. Shops and boutiques can deliver discounts and promotions to the mobile phones. As the consumers walk near the store, they will be attracted by the promotion, discount or voucher that can be redeemed right away on the spot.

Dr. Kaizad, the CEO of U Mobile, is very excited about the new product and service: “We are very happy to work with Alcatel-Lucent on Femtocell project. We are confident in their product quality and we are thrilled with this collaboration. To be the first to launch femtocell in Malaysia market, U Mobile stays focused at our mission of making communication better, simpler and more affordable in Malaysia. At this moment, we are working closely with Alcatel-Lucent on piloting the femtocell technology. We have a very aggressive plan to commercially launch this service thereafter in the market. Please stay tuned for more details to come.”

Alcatel-Lucent managing director of Malaysia, Shawn Sparling, said: “The future of wireless is about providing better broadband services to more mobile devices. The deployment of smaller cells can perform this often more economically than adding new base stations to a network. U-Mobile will stand to benefit from Alcatel-Lucent’s small cell approach that features numerous Bell Labs innovations around self-organizing networks (SON) which significantly reduce operational expenses while improving network performance.”

The installation of femtocell is very user friendly. It is a simple Plug-and-Play exercise when the femto units are brought home. The small intelligent femto device will survey the environment and self-configure itself for the optimal settings.

About Kugan

Kugan is the founder of MalaysianWireless. He has been observing the mobile industry since 2003. Connect with him on Twitter: @scamboy