A group of seven equipment vendors has founded the Femto Forum, to promote indoor base stations designed to improve indoor wireless coverage and offer better services, but as yet no operators have publicly endorsed the concept by joining the Forum.
"The number of members is increasing day by day," said Professor Simon Saunders chair of the Forum. Around sixty organisations are in negotiation to join, including major mobile operators and smaller, regional telcos, and silicon vendors. Most of the sixty were at the group's initial plenary meeting at Heathrow today, said Saunders, but only seven, all of whom make femtocells or indoor wireless equipment, had confirmed their membership: Airvana, ip.access, Picochip, Radioframe and Tatara, as well as Netgear and Ubiquisys who jointly
announced plans for a consumer femtocell last week.
The Forum will promote standards made by other bodies, and aim to drive those bodies by sharing the requirements of operators and handset makers, to help make a standardised market for femtocells, said Saunders, who is a visiting professor at the University of Surrey, has worked for Motorola and Philips, and serves on Ofcom's spectrum advisory board. The Forum will also have working groups on remote management, provisioning and marketing.
While operators are playing their cards close to their chest, analysts think they will jump on femtocells soon: “All of the major mobile operator groups are currently undergoing trials and evaluations of femtocell products to add capacity and coverage to their networks,” said Stuart Carlaw of ABI Research, which has predicted 102 million femto users on 32 milion femtocells by 2011. Carlaw welcomed the Forum: "The introduction of open standards will be critical in enabling an economy of scale that will better enable the OEM and semiconductor communities to meet very aggressive price points and stimulate the market. The Femto Forum provides the ideal vehicle for driving this process.”
Other observers warn that getting femtocells into houses will be complicated: "'One box' households are implausible, especially for the more valuable customer segments," said Dean Bubley of Disruptive Analysis. "Until there's a good way to link up, configure and manage multiple APs, routers, femtocells - as well as integrate them into single units - the market won't grow."
This looks like being one of the missions the Forum will set itself, along with supervising femto standards. It plans to recommend existing standards for telecoms equipment, but will make sure that they meet the needs of small indoor cells, in order to drive down the cost of femtos: "Standards defined for a rooftop cell may be overkill for a femtocell with a range of 10m," said Saunders. Mobile phone standards may also fail to take account of the task of managing millions of small indoor cells, he said, but the Forum will refer to other bodies such as the DSL Forum.
The Forum will have to hold together many different definitions of femtocells, such as "guard band", 3G and even Wi-Fi femtos, and may even be a proving ground for new wireless technologies, such as Mobile Wimax, said Saunders: "Operators can femtocells to get that technology into the homes of initial customers in a very short space of time," he said, building the network "inside out", before rolling out expensive outdoor coverage.
There might be a Femto interoperability brand, but that would depend on whether operators wanted users to switch femto equipment, said Saunders. And the group is unlikely to do much work on enterprise femtocells till the consumer issue is sorted. "Wi-Fi started in the consumer market and had to grow up, it could easily be that femto will do the same," said Saunders. "The key point is the economies of scale."