According to Informa, there are now 2.3 million femtocells buzzing in homes and offices around the world, compared to 1.6 million macrocells. At first glance that might seem like quite an achievement, but on second consideration, it’s really not much of one.
Frankly 2.3 million femtos is a tiny number when you think about what additional capacity and coverage each adds to the network. Most femtos are designed as private access points, serving a family or a handful of office workers and given that many operators haven’t even added mobile broadband radios to their femtos, they’re primarily extending voice coverage and doing little to add data capacity to congested mobile broadband networks. Now contrast that to a macrocell, which is often used to cover whole towns.
For femtocells to become a major component of the network they need to outnumber macrocells a hundred to one, if not more, and so far I haven’t seen any willingness among the carriers to pursue femtos that aggressively.
A study from Infonetics last week pointed to AT&T being the world leader in femto deployments, and Verizon Wireless’s CDMA femto contract with Samsung makes it the largest femto vendor in the world by revenues.
If AT&T and VZW are femtos big champions, then the sector is in pretty big trouble. When not actively pointing out femtocell’s limitations, those operators are certainly marginalizing their role in their network plans. AT&T devotes enormous marketing resources to talking up its 24,000-access point Wi-Fi hotspot network while saying practically nothing about a femto network that must number at least 100,000 access points if any of these numbers are correct (According to Informa, there are 31 commercial femto launches total, meaning if AT&T is world leader it has to have more than 74,000).
Femtocells have to start somewhere, so surpassing macrocells is a milestone of sorts. But it’s also fair to say that given the scale femtos require to make an impact, the market is still in its infancy. The problem is you’d expect an emerging technology to generate more excitement if there’s any expectation of growing. Over the last few years, U.S. operator interest in femtos seems to have a followed a rather low arc: starting with mild interest, followed by disenchantment and in the case of operators like T-Mobile USA, disdain.
I think a lot of femto vendors have sensed this, too, and they’ve been moving transitioning their product lines from private femtos to public small cells. That’s not a bad move. The network of the future will need smaller and smaller cells to keep up with capacity demands, but don’t expect that those small cell heterogeneous networks will emerge out of the 2.3 million femtos out there today. Those will be new networks with new architectures. The whole process will start over until one day Informa issues a report stating the number of small cells have surpassed the number of macrocells.