Blog Posts

Forget femto, think “small cell’

Author: on
Category: Femto cells, Small cells



By Peter Jarich, Current Analysis.

A few weeks back, I was chatting with a vendor in the metro-scale Wi-Fi space about the confusing state of “small cell” marketing and naming.

It was easy, we agreed, back when femtocells were devices designed for indoor coverage of about four people.  Yet, as user capacities grew, coverage was bumped up and hardening was introduced, the market scrambled to come up with names for these new products…names that conveyed their capacity and capabilities, but also the way in which they were different from residential femtocells.  “Picocell” seemed to make sense, but carried a connotation of strict operator control from a deployment and backhaul perspective.  “Microcell” suffers from the same connotation, combined with the ambiguity that results from various vendors using the term in diverse ways.  “Metro Femto,” “super femto” and “Class 3 Femto” were all proposed as better solutions – new terms for a new market.  Again, however, we are left with a number of ill-defined terms, none of which seem to be used with any regularity.

This is why I actually prefer the term “small cell.”  Sure, it’s pretty broad, but it captures the breadth of solutions in the market and speaks to main operator requirement: spatial density and efficient spectrum usage driven by limited coverage base stations.

What worries me, however, is how some of the market’s ecosystem seem confused on the terms.  A recent survey (  of femtocell vendors asked, “what do you believe are the defining differences between residential femtocells picocells or ‘small cell’ microcells.”  Not surprisingly, three characteristics topped the responses: capacity, coverage, and cost.  More surprising, however, was the limited number of responses behind issues such as integration with the network core, hardening, and open access. These may not be the primary differences, but they are important.  Femtocells, for example, will leverage different techniques for integrating into an operator’s core than small cell solutions for 3G offload.  Residential users may not want open access femtos, but operators launching RAN offload products will need open access.

These might seem like trivial differences.  Ultimately, however, for any vendor who hopes to turn its standard femtocell R&D into wider small cell success, they point to the complexities involved.

Peter Jarich, is a research director with Current Analysis.


Add your Comment