Who's keeping an eye on the kids when you're not home? If David Nowicki, vice president of marketing for Airvana, has his way, it will be their mobiles. At the Femtocells World Summit held in London last year, unveiled what he called the 'boyfriend buster' - a detector for people who protective parents don't want their daughters to take home when they are not around.
The boyfriend buster is no more than software running on a cellular basestation designed for the home. Being a basestation, this femtocell - named because it covers a smaller range than the picocells used in shopping centres and microcells in city streets - notices which phones come into range and if they are allowed to register, lets those phones make calls through it. The femtocell can, potentially, do more with that information, possibly letting the concerned dad know by text message or email that the wrong cellphone has turned up at the house or that, with 30 strong signals in the house, the family pile may be home to a Facebook party.
The boyfriend buster is just one service that people such as Nowicki think will consumers will use. There will be femtocells that synchronise users' phones as they arrive home, transferring contacts and diary appointments between their handsets and their home computers. Or the unit may turn the hallway lights on as you walk up the garden path on the way home.
Manish Singh, vice president of product-line management at Continuous Computing, says: "There is a whole range of services that have been talked about. In principle, they boil down to the same basic elements. They will be services that benefit from information about location, presence and context."
For time being at least, people are looking to the femtocell for something a little more mundane but important to them: the ability to use a cellphone in their own home.
After one national newspaper carried a story on silicon supplier Picochip and its work on femtocell components, the company received a number of phone calls and emails from people wanting to find out where they could buy the hardware to sort out their dodgy coverage, recalls director of communications Andy Gothard.
"People want five-bar coverage," says Gothard. "And there is a price people will pay to get it."
Simon Saunders, chair of the femtocell industry group Femto Forum says the US has become the first competitive market for femtocells with AT&T, Sprint and Verizon offering products. And the main selling point being used by those companies is to bring coverage to the home. Verizon's femtocell is advertised as the Wireless Network Extender.
The femtocell can work beyond the range of the wireless network because it uses the fixed-line Internet infrastructure. Although many homes may be just about within range of a standard mobile telephone cell, calls made using a femtocell passes through a wired DSL connection to the internet and from there passes into the mobile operator's fixed-line network.
With access to a 1Mb/s DSL line, operators can more easily demonstrate what users can do with mobile data. "People hear about the headline datarates on mobile networks and wonder whether they can be achieved," says Saunders. "Often they can't on the outdoor network."
Because the phone and the femtocell communicate at very short range - power usage tends to increase as you approach the edge of a macrocell - Saunders says users can achieve high datarates on their mobiles without running down their battery. They can't go beyond the garden, but they can at least surf from wherever they are in the house. And it can demonstrate to users the benefits of using the more advanced data services, in turn driving consumption.
The concept of the femtocell has taken several years to become established. "The challenge has been to get from being able to do a demo, which is what we did four or five years ago, and deploying out there with real handsets. You can't put a best-effort technology into the telecom world. And each of those real-world handsets have their own peculiarities," explains Will Franks, chief technology officer of femtocell specialist Ubiquisys.
By the end of 2009, a small collection of operators in the US, Japan and Europe had started to sell femtocell products to their customers. "We are seeing what we were hoping for. There are nine networks using femtocells at the moment," says Saunders.
"We continue to see stronger adoption in America, followed by Japan and Europe," says Singh.
Japan is the one market where additional services will be important to selling femtocells early on. "3G coverage there is good. But the ability to recognise that you are in your home is a great opportunity for providing new services," says Saunders.
In 2010, that number could increase dramatically: close to 60 operators around the world are currently performing trials and people within the industry expect them to follow companies such as NTT Docomo, SFR and Vodafone into supplying femtocells.
"We are not having to explain what a femtocell is anymore," says Franks, whose company sells femtocell technology to hardware makers and operators. "There are quite significant deployments either underway or starting quite soon."
"We are expecting 2010 to be the crossover year for femtocells. When we hit the mass market," Saunders claims.
The femtocell is emerging into an environment where, in many cases, there is already a wireless hub. WiFi has become a standard feature on DSL routers. Not only that, WiFi is appearing on a growing number of mobile phones. However, according to analyst firm ABI Research, WiFi support on mobile phones is likely to stay restricted to smartphones such as the Apple iPhone and the various models of Symbian- and Android-based hardware. Cheaper featurephones will carry cameras and run browsers but will not necessarily have a WiFi interface.
"All 3G phones can use a femtocell," says Saunders.
There is a more subtle problem with WiFi: setting it up. Creating a secure WiFi network generally involves wading through several pages of forms generated by a webserver running on the router. It is not a simple process for those unused to terms such as SSID, default channel or WPA Passphrase.
Saunders says: "Femtocells offer simplicity of configuration compared to other devices because it is carrier managed. Setup is a real barrier to people if they haven't, or even if they have, had the experience of installing a WiFi access point. We made it a requirement for femtocells that they are truly zero-touch.
An open question is how operators will charge for the femtocell. In the US, Verizon wants around $250 for its Network Extender, although it provides discounts to high-tariff customers. As more operators enter the market, experts expect to see a wide range of offerings, from free with a contract to a one-off charge in the way that Verizon works.
Franks says: "There are plans at some of the operators to do this on a differential tariff basis, where call charges are different at home compared with being away. When you are at home, for example, data may be completely uncapped and calls may be as well."
Although femtocell hardware remains separate to other consumer devices, operators selling bundled services are likely to favour a move to a gateway style design that incorporates other hardware. "We see the femto function getting collapsed more and more into residential gateways and even TV set-top boxes," says Singh.
However, operators may prove wary of providing setup support for Ethernet and WiFi to the home user. "The question remains: will the wireless operator take on that burden and, if so, why?" asks Singh, noting that operators do not want to provide hardware that results in a massive increase in expensive support calls and 'truck rolls' to customers' homes. He add: "There is the question of whether we will see strategic partnerships emerge between wireless and wireline operators."
Saunders sees two changes being important for the femtocell business this year. "First and foremost that it is not something just known in the industry, that if you haven't got one, someone you know has. And it should reach beyond the coverage-based proposition to provide a richer usage environment."
Singh concludes: "This is the year when the femto take-off should take place."
This feature was written for the Communications section of Engineering & Technology. You can read the main copy and additional boxouts here.