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3G/HSPA

Femtocells Gear Up for 3GSM

Femtocells, the micro mobile base stations that can provide in-building 3G coverage, are creating quite a buzz ahead of next week's 3GSM jamboree. (See 3G Base Stations Hit Home.)

NEC Corp. (Tokyo: 6701) got serious about the technology this week, announcing partnership agreements with two femtocell specialists, Ubiquisys Ltd. and Tatara Systems Inc. (See NEC, Ubiquisys Team and NEC Teams With Tatara.)

NEC will offer the UbiquiSys femtocell as part of its Home Gateway Solutions product range. With Tatara, NEC will integrate the company's femtocell technology into its Home Gateway architecture. UbiquiSys and Tatara announced a partnership in September 2006. (See UbiquiSys, Tatara Partner.)

NEC isn't the only company getting in on the home base station act ahead of 3GSM in Barcelona, as Alcatel-Lucent this week struck a picocell agreement with ip.access Ltd. for indoor GSM coverage. (See IP.access, ALU Team.)

"Femtocells are going to be really hot at 3GSM," says Gabriel Brown, chief analyst at Unstrung Insider and author of the recent report, "3G Home Base Stations: Femto Cells & FMC for the Masses."

The latest femtocell technology is currently being put through its paces in carrier labs, with field trials expected by the end of the year. The partnerships formed by Alcatel-Lucent and NEC will add to the technology's momentum, reckons Brown.

"NEC working with a startup could be the winning combination of innovative technology, big-company backing, and a hunger to win business from incumbent 3G vendors," says the analyst.

The femtocell market is being spearheaded by a small group of specialist startups, including 3Way Networks , RadioFrame Networks Inc. , UbiquiSys, and ip.access. (See RadioFrame Intros Femto.)

And 3Way Networks claims to be one step ahead of its rivals. It says it has the first commercially available femtocell, and will show it off at next week's Barcelona event, which is shaping up to be something of a femtocell fest.

3Way's managing director, Simon Albury, stands by this claim, contending that his home base station is six months ahead of the market. "We're shipping to customers, and [the product] is live in their network trials," he says, but he won't disclose any operator customers or how many users are participating in trials.

3Way Networks targets its home base station at small UMTS operators with fewer than 5 million customers. It will also license the software and reference designs to OEM companies.

Mobile operators are interested in femtocells because WLANs in homes and offices threaten to take data and voice traffic off their networks. Deploying low-cost 3G base stations for indoor coverage would help retain some of that network traffic. Some operators have announced indoor coverage trials, but commercial services won't be available until at least early 2008. (See Base Stations Come Home.)

Home base stations can also reduce operator backhaul costs by using the Internet to send 3G traffic back to the core wireless network. Femtocells typically support four to six users and connect to the user's DSL or cable broadband connection.

— Michelle Donegan, European Editor, Light Reading

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