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How to improve the smartphone experience inside the enterprise

By Andy Tiller, SVP of product management and marketing at ip.access, special to Network World
June 08, 2011 04:01 PM ET

Network World - Every day in large and small offices across America, business workers ignore the PC or desk phone and grab their smartphones for convenient voice, email and Internet access. But delivering high quality cellular service inside office buildings is a challenge for wireless carriers, especially for high-speed data which requires a particularly strong signal.

Traditional in-building solutions are expensive and take a long time to implement, but a new generation of "enterprise femtocells" (or picocells) offer a quicker and cheaper answer.

ANALYSIS: Femtocells, Wi-Fi to play growing role in mobile networks

Mobile operators are planning for better in-building coverage in future networks. Next generation heterogeneous network architectures will involve overlapping plots of indoor and outdoor coverage using a variety of macro cells, metro zones, picocells and femtocells.

But the technology to do this today with 3G networks already exists. Indeed, for consumers, AT&T, Sprint and Verizon all offer femtocells for customers who want to improve cellphone service at home. These devices simply plug into an existing fixed broadband Internet connection to connect back to the wireless carrier's core network, thereby generating a personal cellphone signal inside the subscriber's home.

The femtocell concept can quickly and easily be applied to small offices, and with some adaptations, can be scaled up to bigger buildings. These "enterprise femtocells," or picocells, represent a clear choice for larger business premises.

Compared to their residential counterparts, enterprise pico and femto cells offer higher power and greater capacity to cover more cellphone users in large and complex enterprise locations, ranging from office suites to multiple floors in large buildings, retail locations, car parks and many types of public spaces.

Other important differences between these devices and consumer femtocells include open access for all network users, two-way handover with the macro network, and active management by the wireless carrier.

Open access

Home femtocells usually operate in closed access mode, where the end customer authorizes which phones are allowed to make calls. In an enterprise, however, having to register each handset (including visitors) for each in-building cell is an unwanted burden, especially in an office using multiple cells. Therefore, enterprise class femtocells need to be configured for open access, so that service is improved for all network users.

This is especially important in environments where members of the public will come into range of the femtocell (which is much more likely for enterprise class devices than home femtocells, given their increased power and more public locations). Without open access, unauthorized handsets will suffer interference from the femtocell, which may degrade or even block service from the macro network.

Open access dramatically changes the amount of traffic carried on the femtocell -- not just voice and data calls, but also signaling traffic as phones come in and out of range of the femtocell in idle mode, generating location updates in the core network. This means that the core network infrastructure required to support enterprise femtocells must be dimensioned very differently from a residential deployment -- a Femto Gateway that can handle 20,000 residential femtocells may only be able to support 2,000 enterprise devices, for example.

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