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Femtocell-Aware Mobile Handsets

Will cellphones need to be optimised to support future massmarket femto business models?


The report

Disruptive Analysis’ new report, “Femtocell-Aware Mobile Handsets” is a forward-looking and provocative, thought-leadership study, examining whether 2008's hottest new mobile technology - femtocells (cellular home access points) - can really live up to the promises of the vendors.

Can femtocells really work with normal 3G handsets? Or will subscribers need to be provided with expensive upgrades to their existing phones?

The femtocell industry is focusing on the short term – getting initial trials in place, developing standards, and securing commitments for early commercial deployment. But while focus is good – and the industry does not want unnecessary distractions – there is a risk of medium-term disappointment if certain future problems are not addressed early enough.

Already, femto proponents are talking up massmarket business models that go beyond simple indoor coverage and macro-network offload. They are talking about 10’s of millions of subscribers, and new “in-home” services for users, that exploit fast and cheap local mobile connectivity.

But this is based on the notion that people will use their cellphones differently when in range of femtos. There will be different applications and behaviour when people are at home – perhaps content backups, podcasts or even advertiser-sponsored TV programming. The mobile phone may need to linked to TV, PC, HiFi or other items of domestic technology.

This report argues that if the phone will be used differently, it needs to be designed differently as well. Standard phones can work with femtocells, but they are not optimised. The phone needs to be “aware” of the femtocell, ideally both in the radio and the application platform.

But the handset industry is much more complex and slow-moving than many in the wider wireless business understand. It takes often 2-3 years for changes in handset architecture to reach commercially-sold handsets, and another 2-3 years to reach a broad range of devices and reasonable penetration within the user base.

Recent developments in the 3GPP standards organisation have already highlighted future changes that will impact the handset. Other femtocell industry participants have demonstrated applications that need new software and capabilities on phones.

The report cuts through the rhetoric about "standard 3G phones", and looks at the reality of delivering future massmarket femto services, in the hands and eyes of the end user.

The report looks at all the various "layers" of a typical phone, and examines how the advent of femtocells will drive changes and optimisations:

  • Physical design & form-factor of the handset

  • Radio layer & protocol stack

  • Internal hardware - memory, power management etc

  • Handset operating system & connection manager

  • New femtocell-related applications & capabilities

The study includes forecasts for the overall femtocell market, and scenarios examining how the evolution of femto-cell aware handsets may evolve. It examines the value chain of the phone design & manufacturing industry, and discusses the role of component suppliers, OS specialists and industry bodies.

The report is 90 pages long, and is based on a broad research effort spanning dozens of briefings, meeting and interviews, among a wide cross-spectrum of operators, femtocell and core network infrastructure suppliers, industry bodies, handsets vendors and software specialists.

The report has been researched & written by Dean Bubley, founder of Disruptive Analysis, author of the Disruptive Wireless blog, and a recognised global authority on femtocells, FMC, wireless VoIP and mobile broadband. He has been covering the evolution of picocells and femtocells since 2001.


In the past, Disruptive Analysis has accurately predicted that adoption of other mobile innovations like IMS and UMA would suffer from insufficient focus on handsets.

The same now applies to femtocells, unless action is taken NOW.



  • Today’s 3G handsets will work acceptably with femtocells at a basic level.

  • Disruptive Analysis’ baseline forecast is for 19m femtos to ship in 2013, with an installed base of c30m homes. Some other predictions are much higher.

  • Massmarket rollouts of femtocells present future challenges in terms of handset radio protocols, and also application support.

  • The mobile network industry generally underestimates the time taken to add capabilities to handsets, and get widespread adoption of the new devices.

  • The industry also underestimates the amount of work needed to get new concepts working in the hands of the end user. New protocols often require revised client applications and user interface elements – and rigorous testing.

  • It can take 2-3 years from concept to commercialisation for new handset features, and another 2+ years for a wide range of phones to be available.

  • In dense deployments of femtocells, handsets can spend too much time & power attempting to connect at locations that are not their own “home zone”.

  • There can also be issues where handsets “reselect” the macro network under certain conditions, rather than remaining connected to the femtocell.

  • Various scenarios for provisioning femto access could benefit from a client application on the phone – for example, enabling “guest access”.

  • The new 3GPP Release 8 specifications contain various modifications to enable handsets to work better with femtos (called Home NodeB’s)

  • The first R8-compliant phones will likely be shipped at the end of 2010.

  • Various suggestions have been made for “femto-zone” services - but there is no standardised way for handset applications to “know” they are on the femto.

  • Although there are various workarounds, with the network notifying the application when the phone is attached to the femto, this approach is not easily scalable to the wider base of developers or operators.

  • The best solution is for handset “connection manager” software to explicitly recognise femtocell access as a new and specific type of bearer.

  • Handset OS platforms should expose interfaces (APIs) for application developers to determine when the phone is in a femtozone.

  • The most likely femto-aware applications are for content backup & sharing, automated downloads, presence, integration with home consumer electronics, VoIP and security/authentication.

  • There are opportunities for new types of femto-centric mobile device, intended just for use in the home. An example is a standalone 3G radio.

  • Usage of handsets on femtocells may throw up unexpected side-effects, relating to faster / cheaper data connections. This may impact elements of design such as memory allocation and power management.

  • Operators could benefit from new revenue streams from advertisers & other third parties by enabling the provision of “at home” services via femtocells.

  • Using Disruptive Analysis’ baseline forecasts, there should be a demand for at least 48m femto-aware handsets to be sold to femtocell owners in 2013.

  • However, with more optimistic forecasts, and especially if “shared” femtocell models become popular, there could potentially be a demand for up to 300m femto-aware handsets per year in 2013.



Published June 2008

90 pages

Summary contents

Inquire or buy

Who should buy the report?

  • Femtocell vendors

  • Core network suppliers

  • Mobile operators

  • Handset OEMs

  • Semiconductor companies

  • Mobile OS providers

  • Mobile application developers

  • Consultants & investors

  • Consumer electronics firms

  • VoIP and IMS suppliers



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