Picochip Gives Femtocells a New Lease on Life

Picochip this week said it has built a chip that can support far more mobile users on a femtocell and can also help carriers handle the problem of chatty phones that overwhelm networks with notifications that they’re moving from one tower to another, as well as push email, Twitter and other application requests. The resulting femtocell could support up to 60 users in dedicated conversation or web browsing, as well as up to 400 mobile phones engaged in general network chatter. This takes femtocells out of the home, where the business case was always weak, and into public spaces and businesses that could actually afford to pay for the devices and better cell phone coverage. Maybe it will be just what the femtocell market needs to finally take off.

My colleagues (GigaOM Pro sub req’d) and I have both been skeptical about the femtocell opportunity because the mini base stations, designed to improve cell coverage in homes using a consumer’s wired web connection as backhaul, cost too much and required the user to pay a fee each month. Basically, femtocells require users to pay more money to offset a crappy network experience — something many are reluctant to do. However, if Picochip’s beefed-up chips can help femtocells support more users, they could become an attractive solution for larger campuses, and perhaps public places such as Times Square or at a train station. They might also help improve the overall network for operators by taking signaling traffic off congested towers in urban areas.

Chetan Sharma, a wireless analyst, issued a report this week noting that network congestion is generally caused by two big issues: (1) signaling traffic caused by smartphones and superphones and (2) peak data traffic caused by data cards and embedded laptops. He writes that signaling traffic is growing faster than raw data traffic because smartphones are not very efficient with applications. As proof, he points out that smartphone signaling traffic is more than eight times data card signaling traffic, even though smartphones are only a small segment of the overall base of devices on the network. Already, signaling consumes more than 50 percent of the available network resources — a worry as smartphones increase and an opportunity for femtocells.

So while I am still skeptical about femtocells, it’s possible that they may have a larger role to play in cellular networks if they’re made robust enough to support more people, or if carriers find value taking some of the burden of signaling traffic off of their networks. Such a device would certainly help AT&T (s T) with its congested network.

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