Outlook for 3G, 4G and femtocells

PCCA members conservative about LTE progress

Presenters at a Portable Computer and Communications Association (PCCA) workshop on femtocells in San Diego last week splashed a little cold water on the mobile broadband hysteria with a reality check about 3G and 4G network deployment.

Peter Carson, senior director, Qualcomm product management, observed that historically, the time between the initial launch of a new generation of mobile technology and peak device volume deployment is 18 to 20 years. He noted, for example, that 2G volume peaked in 2008.

Using this gauge, he calculated that the highest 3G volumes will hit around 2020, and 4G mobile traffic likely won't peak until the 2028-2030 time frame. This means that 3G and 4G will coexist for a long time, creating a need for gear that support 3G multimode and 4G capabilities, including femtocells.

Femtocells represent one approach to getting advertised mobile speeds to more people - particularly for indoor coverage. The speeds advertised, of course, are best-case scenarios, presuming a user is in close proximity to a cell tower and that there is very little contention on the network.

However, users are often some distance from cell towers, and with the dawn of data-centric smartphones and tablet computers, it's getting tougher to avoid network congestion.

Femtocells are tiny wireless base stations that can bring full network capacity to those farther away from cell tower. Femtocells sprinkled around reuse wireless spectrum and create smaller and smaller cells, thus creating small, local pockets of full capacity. They can do this indoors or out.

Andy Germano, vice chairman of Femto Forum, drew an analogy to a person sitting indoors at night and reading a book. Is it more efficient to call up the electric company and request it turn up the power on an outdoor streetlight or to switch on an indoor lamp next to where you are sitting to get the required light?

There are still a few femto issues to be worked out, such as how soft handover of sessions from the macro network to a femtocell would work for transparency to the user. But Nick Johnson, CTO at femtocell- and picocell-maker IP Access, shared the following timeline:

* 2011 - HSPA+ femtos launch

* 2012 - LTE femtos for metro networks launch

* 2013 - Enterprise LTE femtos launch

* 2014 - API available for femto/PBX integration

* 2015 - Residential LTE femto approach mass market

* 2016 - LTE networks become stable

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