“Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no”- Betteridge’s law of headlines

“Question To Which The Answer Is No” –  QTWTAIN

 

Having founded and chaired the Small Cell Forum for six years (of course then known as Femto Forum), I’ve been asked several times in the last few days whether Wi-Fi Calling  – voice calls carried over Wi-Fi but handled like an ordinary mobile call – heralds the death of the femtocell.

What sparked this sudden interest was the news that not only has Apple enabled the functionality in its latest iOS 8.3 update, but EE this week announced they are the first UK operator to launch a Wi-Fi calling service.

The thought process is obvious: If operator-backed Wi-Fi calling rolls out, then users can rely upon their home Wi-Fi network to support this. There’s simply no need for a cellular femtocell, goes the argument.

This view could hold water when talking about domestic environments where femtocells are shipped to ‘fix’ issues with coverage and reduce churn.

But small cells have come a long way since the first residential devices, moving into the urban, enterprise and rural sectors to name but a few. Particularly in enterprise environments, Wi-Fi Calling is in reality less of a panacea than it claims to be. Wi-Fi Calling relies upon a stable connection with consistent bit rates and latencies to place calls, something that is a huge struggle in a densely populated, heavily loaded environment for Wi-Fi, operating in unlicensed spectrum. Should enterprises install a network that offers the quality of service Wi-Fi calling requires, the levels of contention and strain placed on it in busy environments could mean that voice quality degrades dramatically – even large Wi-Fi vendors seem to agree on this point.

We’ve also seen the arrival of MVNOs boasting an ‘inside-out’ model, namely TalkTalk, BT and Free. These target their network efforts on locations where there is acute traffic – homes, offices, public hotspots – and leave wide area traffic at the macro level for their respective MNO to handle.

These are the main organisations driving residential femtocell volumes, and their reasons for deploying units are not coverage driven; these users already receive coverage from another operator, they instead want to reduce their own costs and enhance the customer experience.

As a result, heralding the demise of the small cell or perceiving this as an “either/or” situation is somewhat misguided. Small cells are used for much more than simply adding coverage, and Wi-Fi Calling still faces difficulties in areas of high congestion.

But by allowing the two technologies to coexist, users and operators can both reap the benefits of lower costs, a greater quality of service, and reduced congestion at the macrocell network level.

– Simon Saunders, Director of Technology (and formerly Founding Chairman of Small Cell Forum)

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