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Small cells

SK Telecom Goes Femto for Data Offload

The news that South Korea's largest mobile operator, SK Telecom (Nasdaq: SKM), plans to expand its femtocell rollout to take some strain off its 3G networks shows that femtos can get in on the mobile Internet offload act. (See Picochip Extends SK Femto Deal.)

The operator, which had nearly 26 million subscribers at the end of March, is ramping up its femtocell service, which was launched at the end of 2010 specifically for data offload.

SK will deploy the latest version of South Korean equipment vendor Contela Inc. 's femto access point, which is powered by chipsets from Picochip , in high-traffic public areas such as cafes, shopping malls, train stations, offices and apartment blocks. The operator plans to deploy 10,000 femtos by the end of this year. (See SK Telekom Preps Femto Service .)

The new femtos, dubbed 2FA, support up to 16 simultaneous users, data rates of up to 42 Mbit/s and 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi. The femto also conforms to the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) Iuh femtocell standard interface. (See 3GPP Publishes Femtocell Standard.)

The femto deployment is just one of the actions the operator is taking to cope with the surge in mobile data traffic from smartphone and tablet users. As of May 4, the operator said it had 4 million smartphone customers and that it expects to beat its year-end target of 10 million smartphone subscribers. Last month, the operator announced that it will increase its capital expenditure for 2011 by 15 percent to increase capacity on its 3G network and accelerate the rollout of Long Term Evolution (LTE). (See SK Telecom Spends Big on Mobile Broadband.)

Why this matters
Femtocells have been eclipsed by Wi-Fi access as a solution for mobile Internet offload, which is partly due to the prevalence of Wi-Fi compared with the availability of femtocell services. So SK Telecom stands out as an interesting example of how the 3G access points can be used in high-usage areas that get congested with data traffic.

It's also interesting that the new Contela femto access points support Wi-Fi, which looks like a best-of-both worlds offload scenario whereby additional capacity as well as mobility is supported in one tiny base station.

This is also an important development for femto chipset pioneer picoChip, as it now faces stiffer competition from big silicon companies, such as Texas Instruments Inc. (NYSE: TXN), that are starting to increase their small-cell product development resources. (See What's picoChip's Exit Strategy? and TI Muscles In on Small Cells .)

For more
Here's some further reading on mobile Internet offload and femtos:

— Michelle Donegan, European Editor, Light Reading Mobile

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