4G: Forget Cell Towers, Bring on the Femtocells

Will personal cell towers replace the giant monstrosities currently sitting on rooftops and beside highways? Manish Singh, a VP with Continuous Computing, says that may be the case with the 4G buildout. He spoke with me about the company’s new line of software and hardware for carriers deploying LTE networks, noting that those in North America and Europe are asking whether they should deploy citywide — or one consumer at a time, using femtocells.

He said two things are driving this, one being the huge capital expenditure associated with building out a wireless network and the second being the length of time it has taken for widespread use of the 3G data networks.┬áVerizon started deploying its EVDO networks in 2003, but only in the last few months — thanks to better pricing and the iPhone — has 3G data been used by many customers. When it comes to 4G provided by LTE, a controlled femtocell deployment ensures that customers could get LTE speeds of up to 150 Mbps (in theory) while at home or in coffee shops and use the existing 3G network while out and about.

The femtocell strategy will be used in another 4G rollout — this time for WiMAX — as part of the Clearwire joint venture involving Clearwire, Sprint, Google and several cable companies. Earlier this year Dave Williams, a former wireless executive and now SVP with Comcast, told Light Reading the cable ISP will use femtocells to build out a network. Using femtocells will bypass wholesale network costs and eliminate some of the problems of backhaul that can stymie 4G networks, Williams said.

I doubt that wireless carriers will abandon towers altogether, but using femtocells to deploy 4G to customers who want to sign up for the service before a citywide deployment sounds like it could make sense. It could also lead to big returns for investors in femtocell companies such as ip.access, Ubiquisys, or the recently funded Percello.