Femtocell Is Edging Toward The Enterprise
Growing vendor support and new standards will bring femto to more offices -- but support headaches and costs are still major issues.
Femtocells are small cellular base stations that are installed in homes and offices and connect to a service provider's network via broadband. They work with any kind of cell device and use the same standards and protocols as external "macro" cells. When users are indoors, their cell phone or data card connects to the femtocell instead of searching for an external base station. Calls are smoothly handed off between inside and outside cells as the user moves.
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New standards, increasing vendor support, and new heavier-duty networks make femto more suitable for enterprise use. The questions now are how businesses will integrate femtocells, and how quickly. The answers will depend on the emphasis operators place on business deployments and how attractive they can make the price.
Although femtocells are simple architecturally, enterprise femto networks aren't. For network operators, management of femtocells, including cell provisioning and traffic prioritization, must be handled carefully. Customers must plan femtocell placement to avoid interference and may need to address issues with Wi-Fi and finicky VPN configurations in their existing networks.
Furthermore, the costs of a large-scale deployment will be much higher than a consumer plan, because businesses require higher quality of service from their Internet service providers, and providers must be able to carry more data as well as voice.
Loud And Clear
This makes femto very different from Wi-Fi-enabled handsets, which require not only the Wi-Fi radio, but also support of specific cellular tunneling protocols such as defined in Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA). There are also some similarities between femto and Wi-Fi: A femtocell's backhaul connection is via the customer's Internet connection, be it DSL, cable modem, T1, or fiber. The femtocell uses the Internet to communicate with a femto gateway managed by the ISP. This central gateway connects to the cellular operator core network, and the femtocells look like so many additional base stations on the operator network. A central configuration server performs management and security functions, including femtocell configuration.
New standards will aid network interoperability. Mobile specifications group 3GPP recently approved a standardized core network interface that's based on existing circuit-switched and packet-switched base-station-to-core-network standards. This interface will standardize communications between femtocells and the femtocell gateway.
Industry associations such as the Femto Forum also are weighing in. Femto Forum members have agreed to use the Broadband Forum's TR-069 CPE WAN management protocol -- the same protocol used for DSL equipment -- to manage customer femtocells in real time.
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