These days I was wondering if in the mid-term, femtocells might replace public Wi-Fi hotspots!?

With the rise of 3G USB keys and notebooks with built in 3G connectivity, the popularity of Wi-Fi hotspots, especially paid ones, is likely to degrade over time. Once people have a 3G card anyway and have instantaneous connectivity anywhere, people just won't bother anymore to search for a public Wi-Fi hotspot and go through the manual login process. In addition, femtos remove another shortcoming of public Wi-Fi, the missing air interface encryption which today leaves the door wide open for all kinds of attacks.

With rising demand for Internet access in hotspot areas such as hotels, airports, train stations, etc., HSPA or LTE femtocells might be the ideal replacement for aging Wi-Fi access points which at some point have to be replaced by new equipment anyway. So mobile operators such as T-Mobile, Orange and others, who have a dual 3G / Wi-Fi strategy today could at some point just make such a move if they see that use of their Wi-Fi systems is decreasing and use of their 3G/4G macro base stations in the neighborhoods of their Wi-Fi installations is significantly increasing.

Some 'dual-mode' operators might even have a database with the geographical location of their base stations and their Wi-Fi installations. Together with traffic statistics of both systems an automated system could document changes over time and could be used to help predict when and if a replacement of the Wi-Fi access points for femto cells might make financial sense. After all, femto cells are just as easily connected to a DSL line than a Wi-Fi installation.

Maybe some femto manufacturers even come up with integrated Wi-Fi/Femto boxes for public installations with the Wi-Fi being used to create a wireless mesh between several nodes in locations with only a single backhaul line and for access for those people not yet having 3G connectivity. Agreed, femto vendors today mainly position themselves around the femto base station for home networks but public femtos might be an interesting opportunity as well.

8 thoughts on “Femtospots”

  1. The problem with public femtospots is that you as a buyer of femtospot connectivity have no assurances of fair or transparent pricing. There is a deep distrust towards data roaming due to strong traditions of price gouging by operators. You are likely to end up with a huge bill or a depleted prepay card. At least with WLAN hotspots the hotspot provider can’t bill you an arbitrary amount.

  2. What are the capacity limitations of current femto’s Martin?

    A public femto could garner quite a lot of traffic and depending upon Qos requests this could limit the amount of users that would have access, would it not?

  3. I had the same thought especially after learning about local IP access support which is a new Femto feature (currently being defined by SA1/3GPP and slated for inclusion in rel9) that allows local IP access. Meaning the operators equipment (GGSN, SGSN, etc) need not be in the user plane at all eliminated a lot of the OPEX (backhaul costs). The operator in effect is renting out the licensed spectrum and doing some administration. I believe this feature further supports this notation of someday replacing WiFi with WWAN. I think the Femto Forum may actually be pushing this in 3GPP.

  4. I believe Netgear already have a combined femto/Wifi.
    At least I remember having read that somewhere.

    I think it will take a lot to remove Wifi for these applications.
    Example: In many countries the hotels provides free of charge Internet through Wifi. When I visit that country I know that the Wifi is free, and downloading a small email over my 3G mobile is going to cost almost as much as the hotel room ;-).

  5. In some cases we may see public femtocells as an addition to femtos. However we will not see outright replacement of WiFi for numerous reasons.

    The main issue is that currently femtos can only service a single operator’s customers (plus roamers, at a hideous cost). If I have a Vodafone SIM in my PC or dongle, it’s no use if the cafe or hotel only has an Orange or T-Mobile femto. They’d either need multiple femtos, or support national roaming.

    I am expecting the industry to work out various ways to offer “free 3G” in places like hotels, ideally without the need for a physical SIM card.

    At the moment, I estimate that there are probably about the same number of users of paid hotspots as 3G modems globally. However, there are many more users of free WiFi and home/office WiFi that will not be replaceable by WWAN or femto usage.


  6. Hi all,

    Thanks for the comments. We all seem to agree that a replacement of Wifi for a 3G femto is not a good idea, hence my suggestion at the end of the post to have a combined femto/Wi-Fi installation replacing aging Wi-Fi access points.

    From a coverage point of view, femtos are not needed in hotels, since I’ve so far always managed to get a good 3G signal in the hotels I have been. However, statistically, replacing aging Wi-Fi systems with Femto/Wi-Fi would statistically increase capacity in the area. So even if I can’t use the femto in the hotel because it wasn’t installed by the operator for whom I have a SIM card, I could still benefit from more available bandwidth, again seen from a statistical point of view.

    Tuffer, you make an interesting point concerning standardization efforts for “local IP access” and how that could be used in combination with public femots. Will do some more reading on this one.


  7. BTW: The next gen Femto’s will also likely support roamers. So as long as your operator has a roaming agreement with the operator that Femto’s connected to, you will be able to use the Femto. Cost of course is unknown. The use case that is not covered is that operators within the same geo area typically do not have roaming agreements. So for example, if you went to a local friends home with a femto and you used a different operator than your friend, no dice but if your friend was in a different country it would likely work. See section 5.3.1 in TS 22.220 if you are curious.

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