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Industry Forms Femto Forum

The femtocell industry got its very own forum today with the launch of the Femto Forum. Boasting 22 members so far, the new group will take on the tasks of marketing home base stations and developing standards. (See Femto Forum Forms.)

Also Japan's SoftBank Corp. is showing off femtocell demonstrations in Tokyo today and mobile broadband applications in the home using technology from Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT), ip.access Ltd. , Sonus Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: SONS), and Ubiquisys Ltd. . (See Ubiquisys, Softbank Demo , Sonus Joins Softbank Demo, Softbank Demos Moto Femtocell, Softbank Trials Femtocell, Sonus May Eye GSM Acquisition, and Sonus Targets Femtocells.)

"Lots of operators are evaluating femtocells," says Gabriel Brown, Unstrung Insider chief analyst and author of the report, 3G Home Base Stations: Femtocells and FMC for the Masses. "Pick any big name operator and they're scoping it out."

But Brown argues that there are still some fundamental unresolved issues with home base stations, not least of which is the business case. "The main issue is whether an operator is going to make any more money with them than without them," says Brown. "The other issue is how the femtocells are integrated into the core cellular network. Where it connects is basically unresolved." (See 3G Base Stations Hit Home, Femtocells Gear Up for 3GSM, and Femtocells Are Coming.)

The Femto Forum's founding members are usual femto suspects, including Airvana Inc. , ip.access, Netgear Inc. (Nasdaq: NTGR), Picochip , RadioFrame Networks Inc. , Tatara Systems Inc. , and Ubiquisys. There are 22 members in total so far, about eight of which are operators. (See RadioFrame Intros Femto, Tatara, PicoChip Go Femto, IP.access, Tatara Team, Netgear Feels Out Femto, Tatara Raises $8M, Netgear, Ubiquisys Team, and ABI Rates UbiquiSys.)

The big names that are missing from the first confirmed Forum members are Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU), Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC), Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. , NEC Corp. (Tokyo: 6701), and ZTE Corp. (Shenzhen: 000063; Hong Kong: 0763). These companies either have developed their own products or are using technology from one of the startups listed above. (See NEC, Ubiquisys Team, NEC Teams With Tatara, Ericsson Unveils Femtocell, ZTE, Samsung Build Femtocell, and Sonus Targets Femtocells.)

Nokia Networks is a notable absentee from the market, but it could soon enter the femtocell space as well, according to Unstrung Insider's Brown. The vendor appears to be debating how much of the solution to OEM, and from which partner, and how much to do itself, says Brown.

"The home is a key battleground," says Simon Saunders, chairman of the Femto Forum, who was also recently appointed to Ofcom 's Spectrum Advisory Board. "Operators have not said that they will provide coverage in the home. But now, the depth of coverage matters hugely... Femtos have the potential to be game-changing."

Before the game-changing starts, the Femto Forum could do some name-changing. With the Forum's responsibility for marketing, one of its first initiatives may well be to come up with a better name for femtocells that consumers will understand. Saunders says "access points" rather than "base stations," or even femtocells, is likely to be the preferred terminology, because many consumers are already familiar with what a WiFi access point is.

"It's important to clearly articulate what femtocells are, make clear what the use cases are, and understand what services [will be offered]," says Saunders. "We'll be supporting the business cases of the operators."

But those business cases remain elusive. Saunders claims that many operators are putting femtocells through their technical paces, but he would not name them.

The Forum's standards work will cover two areas. First, the group will develop a standardized way to "relax the technical requirements" of a macro cellular base station so that the functionality fits into the small home base stations, explains Saunders.

Second, the group will focus on standards for service provisioning and management. "Femtocells need self-deployable management," says Saunders. "We need authentication and provisioning, and need to be able to manage and monitor the service." For this, Saunders says his group will be looking at, and perhaps applying, the standards developed by the Broadband Forum for automated service provisioning, for example. (See HBS: Issues of Management.)

— Michelle Donegan, European Editor, Unstrung

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