FRAMINGHAM 7 MARCH 2011 - The use of femtocells -- small base stations that extend cellular signal coverage within buildings -- is growing fast and spreading from homes to large enterprises, according to industry executives at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last month.
Last year at this time, all commercial deployments of femtocells were residential, but now about one-third are corporate, said Simon Saunders, chairman of the Femto Forum, an industry association.
In enterprises, femtocells not only extend coverage indoors; they can also route cell calls through an enterprise PBX to an employee's four-digit office extension, or enable videoconferencing on a tablet, said David Swift, a product marketing manager at Alcatel-Lucent.
Nevertheless, making cell phones work inside a building remains the dominant driver, said Chris Cox, a product manager at IP Access Ltd. "The tolerance for dropped calls and poor data is diminishing," he said.
While some companies discourage workers from using their mobile phones in the building because of the potential expense, they may be able to negotiate good deals with cellular providers for femtocells, the executives said.
Pricing of office femtocells varies widely and is typically negotiated as part of a larger contract with a cellular operator. For example, an enterprise might be able to strike a deal to get free femtocells in all offices while agreeing to a smaller discount on employee handsets, said Jim Tavares, director of strategy and business development at Cisco Systems Inc.
But femtocells can raise tricky issues for cell phone users near office windows. When the femtocell coverage overlaps with the outdoor macro network, it's difficult to force a user onto a femtocell, Cox said. "It's not a trivial engineering task," he added.
For that reason, most enterprise femtocells are open access, meaning that any nearby cellphone user may end up using the femtocell.
Sign up for Computerworld eNewsletters.