The onward march of the mobile phone continues and, nowadays, it is frequently easier to reach a business contact by calling the mobile number rather than by using the fixed-line DDI number. Even though comms managers would probably like to stop this behaviour, it is becoming a lost cause. People seem to want to have one voice device and carry it in their pockets or handbags.
This situation is presenting ICT managers with a new problem: how to make sure that the mobiles work properly within the building. There are many reasons why mobiles don’t operate too well, such as thick walls and metallic film on windows.
There have been several attempts to solve the problem, such as special antenna systems that pipe the signals from outside to inside. More recently, very small, low-power GSM base stations have appeared that can be installed in buildings by the mobile operators.
These are generally called picocells. They have to be integrated tightly into the mobile networks from spectrum and traffic points of view because the signals will, of course, leak outside the building and other mobiles will connect when they can.
None of these solutions are much help to the average ICT manager but it looks as though hope is on the way in the shape of devices known as femtocells. They take the process a stage further by reducing a base station to the size and cost of a top-end Wi-Fi access point. The femtocell is still connected to the mobile operator’s network but uses a cheap IP connection rather than the leased line used by a picocell.
This technology is particularly suited to 3G networks because they typically run all the base stations on the same frequency. Femtocells could use a different frequency, which would make it less likely that a passing mobile would connect to the femtocell.
There are many benefits in having a 3G femtocell network within a building, particularly when data services are considered. Staff who use 3G data cards when on the move could use them in the office without breaking the bank because it is expected that owners of femtocells would have special deals with the mobile operators for traffic carried over the femtocells. Also, the battery life of 3G mobiles would be increased because their power levels would be reduced when close to a femtocell.
ABI Research forecasts that there will be 32 million femtocells in use by 2011. In the UK, there are two suppliers, ip.access and Ubiquisys. In the first move by the big boys, Nokia Siemens Networks and Thomson recently announced a femtocell and a network gateway with shipments due in 2008.