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Femtocells set for mainstream as 3GPP ratifies standards

It seems likely that 2009 will be a crucial year for the emerging femtocell technology, with several operators planning extensive trials or early commercial roll-outs. While the tiny base stations offer a chance to expand coverage and capacity, or even support new standards, at low capex and opex cost, they also carry the risk of a brand new approach, so it will be vital that carriers are reassured about key issues like interference and unified standards. The new year opened with one important milestone in this respect, the approval of UTMS femtocell specifications by the 3GPP standards body.

It seems likely that 2009 will be a crucial year for the emerging femtocell technology, with several operators planning extensive trials or early commercial roll-outs. While the tiny base stations offer a chance to expand coverage and capacity, or even support new standards, at low capex and opex cost, they also carry the risk of a brand new approach, so it will be vital that carriers are reassured about key issues like interference and unified standards. The new year opened with one important milestone in this respect, the approval of UTMS femtocell specifications by the 3GPP standards body.

The finalization of 3GPP standards is always critical to a new platform because vendors and carriers can be confident that the specs are firm enough to start creating interoperable products – and the process of evolving a volume market with commodity economics, important to the femto business case, can begin.

The 3GPP, which refers to a femto as a Home Node B, agreed its specs at its last meeting of 2008, just before the holiday, setting the scene for fully standardized products to be available later this year. This is likely to attract some of the big names into the sector – while some, like Alcatel-Lucent, have been early movers, the market has so far been dominated by start-ups such as Ubiquisys.

Simon Saunders, head of the Femto Forum, told Unstrung there were still some issues to be finalized, but the world now had a “full femto standard for UMTS” – in record time, compared to the usual track record for wireless specs. Interoperability testing standards-based femto access points and network gateways could be in place by the end of the year, though the creation of testing processes is always a complex process.

As with the LTE standard, the 3GPP was prepared to ratify the basic set of specs for UMTS Home Node B while leaving some issues outstanding, with a deadline of March for these to be addressed and incorporated into the standard. The Femto Forum will now have to address these aspects, mainly concerned with security and network management, over the coming months.

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