Operators Feel Femto Frustration

A lack of standards, unresolved technical issues, and unclear business cases are conspiring to push operator plans for commercial femtocell launches into next year. That’s the message from major mobile operators at the recent Femtocell Europe 2008 conference.

While operators are still enticed by the potential for cost savings, capacity increases, and new service revenues that the mini home base stations promise, they gave a realistic account of their own plans for femtocells here, and they said they anticipate commercial deployments in the market some time in 2009 .

Standards needed
The lack of a definitive standard for femtocells is a sticking point for operators and has even caused some to postpone their vendor selections. SFR , for one, has delayed its femtocell RFQ (request for quotation) because the standards are not yet defined.

SFR, of which Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD) owns 44 percent, participated in Vodafone’s group-level RFP for femtocells last year, but it also issued its own RFQ separately. “We’re assessing another technology in parallel,” Thierry Berthouloux, network solutions director at SFR, told Unstrung. (See Vodafone RFP Fuels Femtocells, Vodafone Picks Femto Vendors, Vodafone CEO Seeks Cheap Femtos, and Vodafone, O2 Test Femtocells.)

But Berthouloux said that SFR has “decided to extend that assessment period.” He said the reason for putting this process on hold is to give equipment suppliers time to “consolidate roadmaps. There’s no point making a decision today.

“We have no plan for a launch,” he added. (See France Is Favorite for Femto First .)

Femto vendor RadioFrame Networks Inc. says that SFR is not the only operator to delay supplier selections this year.

“Big guys have delayed RFQs to the third quarter or the fourth quarter,” says Mark Keenan, RadioFrame's general manager for EMEA. “They want more clarity on 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) status and also, the product. You can see the operators are saying it’s not really ready. Operators are being quite pragmatic… [and have] a realistic approach.”

While equipment suppliers have taken a big step recently to agree on a framework for defining a femtocell standard -- thanks to vendor compromises and the Femto Forum Ltd. facilitating a consensus -- the hard work to hash out a standard at the 3GPP is just beginning. (See Vendors Unite on Femtocell Architecture, 3GPP Picks Femtocell Standard, and Ubiquisys Supports Standard.)

T-Mobile International AG ’s head of RAN strategy, Zhongrong Liu, said the femtocell standardization process was hampered by “lack of resource or focus from big vendors,” and he urged them to send more delegates to the 3GPP working groups. (See T-Mobile Invests in Femto Firm and T-Mobile Trials Femtos.)

“We need standardization if we want success with femtocells,” said Liu. “Some vendors are building ecosystems. That’s fine, but we don’t want numbers of small ecosystems, we want one big ecosystem.”

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