Femtocells - the consumer devices that extend cellular coverage indoors, using broadband to connect mobile devices to the phone nuetwork - have made progress this week. Standards for the devices have made progress, and the technology has lined up new backers - including Qualcomm, and a surprisingly positive assessment by a company which you would expect to be hostile.
"Qualcomm is one of the world's leading players in the technology space," said Steve Mallinson, chief executive of ip.access. "They want to get an insight into what kind of silicon to develop in future - they want to understand how the handset space will develop, and how it will be impacted by femtocells."
The kind of thin Qualcomm will learn is that handsets will be involved in a lot more local media transfer, if femtos fulfil their predicted role as a home networking hub. It won't get any intellectual property from the femto maker, says Mallinson, and there's no suggestion that Qualcomm will get into the femto market itself - but it's a vote of confidence.
That's nice, but vendors can be relied on to support new technologies. More impressive is the increase in evident support from the eventual customers - the operators. Industry body, the Femto Forum, launched in July 2007 with no operators, now has plenty on board.
"Nearly 40 percent of our membership is operators," says Forum chair Simon Saunders. Recent additions include AT&T, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile US, as well as China Telecom and SK Telecom. The operator members cover all the major options for next generation wireless networks, including UMTS, CDMA, and WiMax, he says. "We really do see this is not a technology restricted to one geography or one air interface." The members have around 830 million subscribers between them, he says.
What about the technology?
The Forum's job is to promote the technology and make sure there are good standards for it, so operators can put together good system, however - and Saunders is pleased with progress there - with agreements to standardise much of the so-called Fa interface between femtocells and the gateways they connect to over the Internet.
"There shall be a single definition of the Fa interface with specific modules defined for each radio technology to comply with existing standards," the group has decided. "You should be able to take a 3G femto and plug in into anyone's network," explains Saunders.. Whatever the badge on the femto,it should operate with that network. "
Like broadband modems, femtos should be user-installable, he says and, he hopes femtos will be standardised more quickly.
The Forum's standards work will combine different aspects of technologies, he says, and use existing work where possible. He suggests the group will steer a path that will eventually get rid of distinctions like that between UMA-based femtos and IMS ones:"There may be different phases and dialects, but where there are different proposals,, such as UMA and IU/IP, there are good points about all of them. What we are encouraging is that these all merge together into a single approach."
The Forum will take a "Net-head" view of the role of femtocells - collapsing functionality into the femto, so that it has intelligence to make the best use of the dumb pipe to the network. That's an important change in mindset for the operators in the group who come originally from a world of intelligent networks.
"Functionality that would have been in the network is going to be pushed out into the femto," says Saunders. "You can have a lot of intelligence in the AP where it's needed, so it can handle four good quality speech calls " Also, a lot of traffic will be localised, if the femto fulfils its roles as a home hub that carries media around. That, says Saunders, should be allowed independently of the operator.
It's also completely agnostic on the air interface, with femtos suggested for both LTE and WiMax - and already in use on Sprint's CDMA network.
How will standards appear?
The Forum does its work in plenary sessions - there is one this week in Reston Virginia - and these will create submissions that can go to standards bodies such as 3GPP. "It is only weeks before there will be actual standards contributions," says Saunders.
These contributions will be for small changes - "as small as possible" - to existing standards. The 3GPP recently upgraded femtos from a study topic to a committee work item, which means a standard will be developed.
Formally, the Forum is a "market representation partner" to the 3GPP and 3GPP2 bodies. "It's a seat at the top table," says Saunders. "We sit alongside groups like ETSI." However, the Forum doesn't get to submit standards work under its own name however - it has to be handed in by members, he explains.
The group also has co-operation agreements with the DSL Forum - whose TR069 protocol is going to be extended to manage femtos - and the GSMA.
Support from a Wi-Fi player?
Femtos have gained a surprising acknowledgement - from a vendor who might be expected to be downright hostile to the technology.
Wi-Fi vendor Aruba, has published a white paper assessing the potential for femtocells, and their likely competition with Wi-Fi.
Aruba warns that it won't happen overnight, and it doesn't cede the home network to the femto - but it suggests that Wi-Fi and femtos will have to be merged or combined in some way - something which Saunders also wants to see.
but its conclusion is surprisingly positive: "It will take some years, but the possibilities exposed by inexpensive femtocells in conjunction or competition with Wi-Fi access points promise considerable disruption to existing business models, to the ultimate benefit of consumers."
That sort of kudos from a Wi-Fi vendor could be a sign that femtos are making genuine progress towards reality. As Saunders say, "It's not a zero sum game."