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Huawei, NEC Score Orange Femtocell Deal

Orange (NYSE: FTE)'s mobile operator Orange plans to launch an enterprise femtocell service next year and has already selected Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. and NEC Corp. (Tokyo: 6701) to supply the mini base stations, Unstrung has learned.

Orange plans to launch a commercial femtocell service in 2009 for small-to-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and large corporate customers in France and the UK to fill indoor 3G coverage gaps, according to Robert Swift, head of voice marketing at Orange's enterprise line of business.

The operator has no plans for residential femtocell services, he adds.

But in terms of enterprise femtocell equipment volumes, Orange's 3G service looks set to be a low-key affair. Swift reckons Orange will deploy tens of thousands of devices in the first three years. "I don't think I'll get into the hundreds of thousands in the first three years in the UK and France," he says.

Those volumes won't overwhelm Orange's vendors NEC -- which uses the Ubiquisys Ltd. ZoneGate femtocell in its solution -- and Huawei, both of which have scored some early operator contracts at SoftBank Corp. and StarHub , respectively. (See NEC, Ubiquisys Win Softbank Femto Deal, Huawei Lands More Femtocell Action, and StarHub Launches 3G Femto Service.)

For Orange's femto service, the application is strictly better indoor coverage. And Orange is unlikely to create enterprise service bundles for femtocells, like special offers that include 3G devices or laptops, according to Swift.

"We want to keep the femto in the background as a network enabling technology," he says. "We don't want to put any commercial offer behind [the femto] because not everyone needs it. We don't want to give the impression that you need a femto to enjoy these [3G] services."

Orange is not alone in positioning femtocells as a solution mainly for improving indoor coverage. According to the recent Heavy Reading operator survey, "Femtocell Deployment and Market Perception Study," improved coverage was viewed as the biggest factor driving the femtocell business case. (See 2010: Year of the Femto and Femtocells & Notspots: Coverage Is King.)

The survey also revealed operators' willingness to deploy femtocells for SMEs. For more advanced femto applications, 62 percent of respondents said small business services were among the most important.

For Orange, the critical element for the enterprise femto business plan and what will determine the service fees is self-installation. Orange does not want to have to dispatch engineers out to small businesses to install the femtocells.

"Our nirvana is that we could post a femtocell to a customer and they would literally be able to plug and play," says Swift. "Our goal is an unattended installation."

If such "zero touch" provisioning is possible, Swift says Orange could charge around €30 per month for the femto service and that the cost of deployment would be covered by that subscription price.

Orange will test to what extent the femtocells can be self-installed in friendly user trials in the second or third quarter next year.

"That hasn't been our experience with picocells," he says adding that pico installations have cost several hundred euros because engineers had to be involved.

Orange's decision to go with femtocells for indoor 3G coverage for businesses was partly based on the operator's work with deploying GSM picocells, which was a "mixed experience," says Swift. Orange has used a picocell solution from Nokia Networks and RadioFrame Networks Inc. for its OnSite Coverage service. (See Orange Deploys Picocell, TeliaSonera Tackles Indoor Coverage , NSN, RadioFrame Team, and Orange Expands Indoor Coverage.)

"The problem with picocells is the whole cost model," he says. "However cheap you get the box, it takes up as much resources on the macro network as a full-size BTS site."

By contrast, he says femtocells are "cost advantageous for us."

"Femtocells can be deployed at a fraction of the cost of picocells and take up less capacity on the macro network," says Swift.

— Michelle Donegan, European Editor, Unstrung

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