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Femtocells win friends and influence people

This starts to look like reality

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Femtocells - the consumer devices that extend cellular coverage indoors, using broadband to connect mobile devices to the phone nuetwork - have made progress this week. Standards for the devices have made progress, and the technology has lined up new backers - including Qualcomm, and a surprisingly positive assessment by a company which you would expect to be hostile.

US mobile silicon maker Qualcomm has invested in one of the leading makers of femtocells, ip.access, joining other supports of that company including Cisco, Intel and Motorola.

"Qualcomm is one of the world's leading players in the technology space," said Steve Mallinson, chief executive of ip.access. "They want to get an insight into what kind of silicon to develop in future - they want to understand how the handset space will develop, and how it will be impacted by femtocells."

The kind of thin Qualcomm will learn is that handsets will be involved in a lot more local media transfer, if femtos fulfil their predicted role as a home networking hub. It won't get any intellectual property from the femto maker, says Mallinson, and there's no suggestion that Qualcomm will get into the femto market itself - but it's a vote of confidence.

That's nice, but vendors can be relied on to support new technologies. More impressive is the increase in evident support from the eventual customers - the operators. Industry body, the Femto Forum, launched in July 2007 with no operators, now has plenty on board.

"Nearly 40 percent of our membership is operators," says Forum chair Simon Saunders. Recent additions include AT&T, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile US, as well as China Telecom and SK Telecom. The operator members cover all the major options for next generation wireless networks, including UMTS, CDMA, and WiMax, he says. "We really do see this is not a technology restricted to one geography or one air interface." The members have around 830 million subscribers between them, he says.

What about the technology?

The Forum's job is to promote the technology and make sure there are good standards for it, so operators can put together good system, however - and Saunders is pleased with progress there - with agreements to standardise much of the so-called Fa interface between femtocells and the gateways they connect to over the Internet.

"There shall be a single definition of the Fa interface with specific modules defined for each radio technology to comply with existing standards," the group has decided. "You should be able to take a 3G femto and plug in into anyone's network," explains Saunders.. Whatever the badge on the femto,it should operate with that network. "

Like broadband modems, femtos should be user-installable, he says and, he hopes femtos will be standardised more quickly.

The Forum's standards work will combine different aspects of technologies, he says, and use existing work where possible. He suggests the group will steer a path that will eventually get rid of distinctions like that between UMA-based femtos and IMS ones:"There may be different phases and dialects, but where there are different proposals,, such as UMA and IU/IP, there are good points about all of them. What we are encouraging is that these all merge together into a single approach."


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