The telecommunications industry, of which cable is now a card-carrying member, loves acronyms, phrases, trends and “hot” technology buzz. Remember the information superhighway? Remember roadkill on the information superhighway? Remember dot bomb and nuclear winter and build-it-and-they-will come? Remember FiOS? Whoops, that one’s still around.

The latest craze sweeping telecom nation is femtomania, putting all your hopes into a low power wireless access point called a femtocell operating in licensed spectrum. When attached to the right spot in a mobile operator’s network, a femtocell is expected to improve broadband connectivity within a residence and replace the wireline phone.

Femtocells are moving so fast they’ve left skid marks on fixed-mobile convergence (FMC), the last great hype for merging wireless and wireline technologies. They’re on such a tear that they even have their own interoperability organization, the Femto Forum, which this week announced it’s broken its efforts into four working groups studying 1) over-the-air radio and physical layer issues; 2) networks and interoperability; 3) regulation and how it might impact the technology’s development; and 4)—putting the cart ahead of the horse—how to market femtocells to the residential broadband consumer.

“It was important for the nascent (yes, he said nascent) industry to come together and build a broader ecosystem and make sure that standards were moving forward fast enough and make sure that operator/carrier requirements were actually being considered all the way through the space,” said Simon Saunders, who in May stepped in as chairman of the Femto Forum. “It was very important from my point of view that the Forum wasn’t just an environment for a number of niche vendors but a really representative group that included the larger OEM and system integrator-type vendors and brought together the operators with the vendors.” Friends of distinction? Of the 40 Forum members, few, if any, could be called friends of the cable industry and most, if not all, could be classified as mobile players who would be either apathetic or worse to cable’s needs.

“Naturally the mobile operators are the ones that are starting off with a keen interest and providing the sort of impetus for the growth of femtocells,” said Saunders.

Naturally. At the most basic level, a femtocell is a residential mini-hotspot that improves mobile connectivity within a residence by acting as a sort of tiny cell site. At its most insidious, a femtocell backhauls its mobile traffic through a wireline broadband connection. If that connection is a DSL line provided by Verizon or AT&T, it shouldn’t present earth shattering problems; if it’s a Comcast or Cox or Time Warner cable modem, it’s another matter. Not only would those MSOs probably lose a voice customer, they’d also have to give up backhaul bandwidth to the competition.

Not exactly something that will bring a ringing endorsement from the cable folks. Working for pieces “It is very important to make all the pieces work together so that the femto works well with DSL or cable infrastructure behind it and that in turn provides a service that integrates well with a mobile services network,” Saunders said. “Bringing those pieces together was very much what our network working group is there to ensure.”

More likely the Femto Forum working group that will become most heavily involved will deal with regulators and regulations because, without some form of regulation—gentlemen, start your lobbyists—no wireline provider unaffiliated with a wireless operator can and would guarantee quality of service on the backhaul. Without QoS, no wireless provider can guarantee a pleasant in-residence experience with a femtocell and … you get the idea.

While not saying so, Saunders acknowledged this possibility and hinted that the regulatory working group would lead the charge.

“The regulatory working group is helping explain the benefits of the technology to regulators, showing that it’s spectrum efficient (for the wireless carriers, not necessarily the wireline pipes) and it’s a way of getting mobile broadband services out to locations that would otherwise be hard to do such as rural areas and inside domestic properties that would otherwise be hard to cover,” Saunders said.

The success of that effort, and others within the mobile industry to push this model, will go a long way to determining if femtomania becomes as popular as, say, Beatlemania or is just a one-hit wonder like ISDN. – Jim Barthold

The Daily

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