India’s mobile operators are slowly warming up to the idea of using and access points to provide in-building coverage as part of their 3G and network rollout strategies.
“For 3G rollout we have started with macro cells but we will move to femtocells for in-building coverage,” stated Aircel Ltd.’s CTO Mallikarjuna Rao at Light Reading’s recent Mobile Broadband Summit 2011 in New Delhi.
Femtocells are tiny base stations that use a broadband connection to backhaul traffic into the mobile operator’s core network and so are well suited to expanding a mobile operator’s network coverage inside buildings such as homes and offices. “We would also be using picocells [bigger and more powerful than femtos] for addressing the enterprise segment,” he told delegates as he was interviewed on stage at the event.
Aircel has recently launched 3G services and is planning to add LTE TDD capabilities to its mobile network in the coming year as it puts its BWA (Broadband Wireless Access) spectrum to good use. (See Aircel Preps Its LTE TDD Launch.) Aircel is not the only operator with femtos on its mind. Industry sources say Bharti Airtel Ltd. is also evaluating the use of the mini base stations in its 3G and LTE TDD rollout plans.
Idea Cellular Ltd., meanwhile, is “evaluating various options, including femtocells for in-building access for 3G,” says Arvind Pandey, Vice President, Planning, at Idea Cellular Ltd., which recently launched 3G services. “It is a good option, but we are yet to decide,” adds Pandey, who was also a speaker at the Mobile Broadband Summit and who shared his thoughts on the 3G market with Light Reading TV.
However, the use of femtos in India is not going to be without challenges. There is hardly any broadband penetration in the Indian market and thus the use of femtos is limited to a few metros and urban areas. Initially, operators will be able to use femtos in urban areas and within enterprise campus/building environments.
“Deploying femtos is not so easy in India because there is not that much broadband penetration. However, there is a growing interest from the Indian operators in femtos and the prime reason for that is poor indoor 3G coverage,” says Wim Sweldons, President of Wireless at Alcatel-Lucent. Another challenge facing the development of the femto market in India is the high retail cost of the end user products. However, prices are likely to decrease as production volumes grow and the vendors enjoy the resulting economies of scale.
“It’s a chicken and egg situation,” says Rakesh Vij, Vice President-Business Development, Wireless, Convergence and Datacom at Aricent Inc., which is now promoting itself under the new brand name of Aricent Group and which has teamed up with vendor NEC Corp. for the deployment of femtocells in India.
“Right now a femtocell is available for around US$100, but in India it is likely to gain traction when [the price] comes down to $30-$40. The price will definitely come down once the volume increases,” notes Vij. Besides AlcaLu and NEC, various other vendors such as Nokia Siemens Networks, Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. and ZTE Corp. are going to fight for deals in this segment.
In addition to a boost from 3G operators that want to broaden their data service coverage, India’s femtocell market is set to be driven by the forthcoming launch of multiple LTE TDD networks by the country’s BWA license-holders, most of which are planning to build LTE TDD networks. That’s because the BWA spectrum band, 2.3 GHz, is not optimal for in-building access. As a result, experts believe the BWA players will need to include femtocells and their larger cousins, picocells, in their rollout plans to ensure decent continuous coverage.
“In-building coverage is going to be key in LTE TDD network because there are going to be more indoor users than outdoor users,” says Professor Bhaskar Ramamurthi, Honorary Director at India’s Center of Excellence in Wireless Technology (CEWiT). “Indian operators will need to use picocells in their LTE networks. In fact it is one of the focus areas of new standardization [work],” he adds.
Gagandeep Kaur, Editor, Light Reading India