Femto Cells On The Retreat – Long Live Small Cells?

For many years it has been an open secret in the industry that enhancing coverage inside buildings can’t be done well from the outside via the cellular layer but as to be done from the inside. One way this has been attempted by some network operators, especially for homes and small businesses were Femto cells. In this context I define femto cells as small ‘plastic’ routers with 3G functionality inside for home and small office use. But the concept hasn’t really caught on, at least not in Europe anyway, and one big network operator is now phasing out its old 3G femto cells without a replacement offer.

According to this article (in German), Vodafone Germany is now phasing out its femto cell offer. The article also mentions that no hardware alternative is offered. Instead Vodafone mentions its VoWifi service as a potential replacement technology, which, to be fair, is now supported by the majority of devices in the mid to high price range. In other words: Forget your femto, embrace the Wifi you already have. This is all nice and well but unfortunately seamless connectivity is lost. For those only being temporarily at a location so far covered by a femto cell they now have to find out if and how they can connect to a Wifi network. No password, no network. Far from ideal.

But the idea of small cells seems to be far from dead and the current hype focuses on what is now called small cells. Mobile Europe published a good article on the topic recently which contains a link to more details in their April 2017 insight report at the end. A central idea for small cell operation is the ‘neutral host’, which they define as a company offering and managing indoor cellular coverage with small cells which are shared by several network operators. I’ve written about this concept in the past as well without using the term and it was interesting to see that they came up with similar opportunities and challenges as I did such as incentive, who pays whom, who is responsible for maintenance and network operation, where does the backhaul come from, etc. etc.).