San Francisco, CA -- As chip, software and system vendors gather to regale carriers at next week's Mobile World Conference, falling costs and proven viability will give many the courage to declare 2010 the year of the femtocell, and quietly, eagerly, put 2009 behind them .
And for good reason. As products prepared to enter the market in early 2009, the potential for femtocells to augment both public and domestic dead zones was tantalizingly close to being realized. However, while system and carrier rollouts did materialize, slow uptake by the end of 2009 forced many to reset their expectations and analysts to slash their numbers, in the case of ABI Research, by a whopping 55 percent. From 750,000 units for the year down to 350,000.
For Doug Pulley, chief technology officer at femtocell chip vendor picoChip Designs Ltd. (Bath, U.K.), the slow uptake can be attributed to infrastructure and IT birthing pains, as well as high consumer premises equipment (CPE) costs, both of which have been resolved-- the latter thanks to a new chips that lower the overall bill of materials (BOM).
Those infrastructure issues include "back-office stuff" like provisioning , support, training, interference mitigation and ensuring plug-and-play compatibility. All told, Pulley puts the rollouts in 2009 down to a general "pipecleaning," exercise and describes the launch of a picoChip-based femtocell by Vodaphone in June of last year as a 'soft launch' that helped in that process. For 2010, "we're very bullish and we anticipate seeing multiple launches," he said.
picoChip is already in up to 20 systems now being launched by carriers such as AT&T, SFR, Vodaphone and Softbank and Pulley expects an NTT Docomo launch this year. The key to the success of those launches, as alluded to earlier, resides in the price of the CPE.
The original femtocell launched by Vodaphone and shown below originally cost $250 (now $78) off a BOM of roughly $100. A major cost factor is the PC202 picoarray processor, as well as the support logic provided by the Xilinx Spartan XC3S1600E and the Lattice MachXO LCMXO640E (get quote)FPGAs, as well as the Marvell 88E6031-LAJ1 3-port Fast Ethernet switch (get quote).
The first Vodaphone femtocell cost $250 and is based on the PC202 from picoChip. Nex-gen femtocells will be well under $100 as integration increases and volumes increase in 2010.
Click on image to enlarge.
According to Pulley, the latest version of the picoArray, the PC302, is more integrated and reduces the need for extra logic for radio interfacing, timing and synchronization, functions typically serviced by the FPGAs. It also is more of a 'collapsed network', versus a basestation plus network controller and is more flexible in its management of users and range, thereby reducing the processing overhead.
All told, said Pulley, the PC302 brings the BOM down by a third, to $65 vs. $100. While it handles the same number of users--between four and eight-- it is Release 7 HSPA+ compliant, versus the PC202's Release 6 compliance.
The PC302 is shipping in volume now and will be in systems later this year, said Rupert Baines, picoChip's marketing manager, while a next-generation device, the PC312/323 will sample in Q3. That chip will support up to 16 users, be Release 8 compliant (42 Mbits/s downlink, 11 Mbits/s uplink), have receive diversity and MIMO capability and a range of up to 2 km. Expect lots of activity from picoChip and its partners, including Ikanos and others yet to be announced, at MWC next week.
Other chips on the Vodaphone femtocell include memory support in the form of 2 Gbits of Hynix (HY27UF082G2B) NAND flash and 256 Mbits of MirrorBit flash from Spansion (GL256P11FFIV2).
The RF portion is primarily from Maxim, and includes the MAX2599 femto-basestation bits-to-RF transmitter, the MAX2547 WCDMA/HSPA Band I RF-to-bits femto-basestation receiver and the MAX5462 digital potentiometer. Skyworks provided 2-W SKY65120-21 power amplifier and Sagem Communications came in with the HiLo GSM/GPRS module.
U.S. femtocell interest rising
While much of the publicity for femtocells is Euro centric, a survey from ABI Research done in the summer of 2009 showed that 30 percent of American consumers are very interested in femotcell technology, and 20 percent would not mind having a femtocell, but are not very aware of what it does. That's 50 percent of the US market which femtocell vendors are hoping to tap into in 2010 with cheaper CPEs and greater capabilities.
While cellular voice and high-speed Internet access are baseline functions for femtocells, analysts predict more features. "Soon a femtocell will be able to detect when one of its users enters its network, and can be programmed to send an SMS letting you know who just arrived," explained Aditya Kual, Principal Analyst and Practice Director of Mobile Networks for ABI Research. An example being when a child returns home from school.
"Another application that has the potential to be added to a femtocell is the ability to synchronize the user's iphone or ipod through the femtocell to their computer, instead of having to be plugged in," he added.
By 2014, ABI Research believes 40 million femtocells will have shipped in to the market, as vendors begin to offer low-cost, higher-value femtocells. It may become as common as the Wi-Fi router.
--Michael P. Azzara is a first-year engineering student at Stevens Institute of Technology (Hoboken, NJ)