StarHub Launches 3G Femto Service

StarHub , which offers mobile and cable network services in Singapore, has launched what it claims is the world's first commercial 3G femtocell service, called Home Zone.

StarHub customers, who need a post-paid 3G mobile subscription, a 3G device, and a cable broadband connection to sign up for the service, can make unlimited local voice and video calls to fixed and mobile lines, and send unlimited SMS messages, using their 3G handsets when they're within range of their home base stations.

Each Home Zone customer will be provided with a Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. 3G femtocell, which is then connected to their cable broadband router. When the customer, plus any of the additional three StarHub 3G customers that can be added to any Home Zone account, are within range of the femtocell, their voice and video calls and text messages are routed over the cable broadband connection.

The commercial launch follows an extensive trial that began in May this year, and which also included femtocell devices from Huawei's domestic rival ZTE Corp. (Shenzhen: 000063; Hong Kong: 0763). (See StarHub Starts Customer Femto Trial.)

The introductory fee for the commercial service, available until the end of this year, is 16.05 Singapore dollars (US$10.63) per month for the first 12 months. Those signing up from the beginning of 2009 will pay S$32.10 (US$21.26) per month. Mobile data services, such as Internet usage and data downloads, are not included in the monthly fee and are charged at the standard 3G service rate.

Home Zone users should find a decent quality of service for any data services they do use when in range of their home base stations, though. According to StarHub, the femtocells are HSPA (high speed packet access)-enabled, offering peak rates of 7.2 Mbit/s downlink and 1.9 Mbit/s uplink.

While the move represents a brave leap into new 3G service territory, StarHub is exercising a degree of caution, as the service is limited initially to a maximum of 200 customers, though that cap is expected to be lifted in the coming weeks.

The operator is also closely monitoring the activation process: While the service is intended to be self-install, StarHub is offering to send a technician to Home Zone customers' homes to fit and test the femtocell.

"Limiting the service to just 200 customers initially is sensible, but only barely qualifies as a commercial launch," says Heavy Reading senior analyst, and femtocell expert, Gabriel Brown. "Scaling femtocells to the mass market is a challenge for commercial and technical reasons, although this is a good first step." (See Heavy Reading Reveals Femtocell Survey Results, 2010: Year of the Femto, and Femtocells & Notspots: Coverage Is King.)

And Brown isn't surprised that Huawei is the femtocell vendor. "StarHub is very much a flagship account and is often the first to deploy Huawei’s new products and technology in its wireline and wireless networks," he notes.

Huawei has had femtocell success elsewhere, too, mostly in Europe. (See Huawei Lands More Femtocell Action.)

At the end of September, StarHub had more than 1.7 million mobile customers, of which 586,000 were 3G users and 365,000 cable broadband customers.

— Ray Le Maistre, International News Editor, Light Reading

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