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UK ISP TalkTalk’s 4G Femtocell Broadband Routers Still Some Way Off

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015 (1:57 am) - Score 2,825

TalkTalk’s plans for launching a new home broadband ISP router with small cell based 4G (LTE) femtocell technology inside, which could help to cut mobile costs and boost indoor network coverage, continue to show huge promise, but we’re unlikely to see a final product anytime soon.

Femtocells are effectively miniature mobile phone base stations that can harness your fixed line broadband connection in order to boost a mobile signal. A number of mobile operators, such as Vodafone and Three UK, already offer dedicated femtocell routers that can be used to boost the indoor 3G and 4G mobile signals of their networks.

The technology also has other applications too, for example a fixed line ISP like TalkTalk could use this approach to off-load data and or voice requests from their Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) platform with O2 and send it over a fixed line network instead. This approach can also be used to save money or cut prices (mobile data is more expensive than fixed line).

Most readers will know that BT has been developing just such a solution to work on EE’s network, but TalkTalk has also been working on a similar approach since as far back as 2013 when their MVNO partner was still Vodafone.

TalkTalk’s May 2014 Statement:

In conjunction with our plans to build a converged fixed-mobile offer using our 4G spectrum and femtocells, such a national roll-out would allow us to offer our customers seamless, unlimited and low cost connectivity in their homes and businesses, and significant opportunities to drive growth over the longer term.”

Currently TalkTalk are still in the process of migrating away from Vodafone and on to O2 (here), which is apparently presenting quite a few challenges and has created some divisions with their former partner (here). But despite those problems they haven’t forgotten about femtocell technology.

As a recap, TalkTalk’s Femtocell solution would involve using a tiny shred (3.3MHz) of low-power 1800MHz FDD GSM guard band spectrum, which the ISP picked up some years ago from Opal Telecom (guard band means an unused part of the radio spectrum between bands, which is usually used for preventing interference). Opal originally won this spectrum from Ofcom for £155k in a 2006 auction.

Originally Opal tried to get the 1800MHz band to work with the Global System for Mobile communications (GSM), but the low power limits of the licence made this difficult. Since then TalkTalk has been able to get the more modern femtocell LTE (4G) standard to work within these limits and we understand it can deliver 4G download speeds of 16Mbps at up to 60 metres (VoLTE support is also possible).

However, despite all of the talk.. talk, we’ve yet to see an actual product and that’s because developing the technology hasn’t been easy. Martin Wren-Hilton, TalkTalk’s Head of Mobile Innovation, is on record as highlighting some of the challenges involved, not least with getting LTE and DECT manufacturers to support their approach (you can’t build it unless the hardware manufacturers at least agree it works).

Eventually TalkTalk were able to prove the technical viability of their approach, but the technology remains in a very early pilot phase and many hurdles exist on the road to launch, not least with the need to replace customer routers (this can be done organically over time) and a requirement to follow some tricky licencing conditions.

Concerns over the possibility for interference with other services are another issue, although the low power nature of their spectrum makes this less of an issue.

Martin Wren-Hilton, TalkTalk’s Mead of Mobile Innovation, told ISPreview.co.uk:

We are hugely excited to be developing an inside out LTE network using femtocell technology. These things take time, and it’s still a research and development project at this stage.”

At the end of the day TalkTalk’s Wren-Hilton says they’re still “absolutely committed” to the launch of a 4G Femtocell service, but no timescales appear to have been set and the ISP still has a long way to go before they can turn it into a real product.

Meanwhile BT will probably get their own consumer Femtocell solution out first (possibly before summer 2016), but that assumes there are no further hiccups in its development or with their EE merger.

Most of us know how irritating weak indoor mobile signals can be and so any solution that can help to alleviate such problems is likely to be a welcome one, particularly as it’s unlikely to cost subscribers anything extra to use (assuming you haven’t had to pay for that router upgrade).

Mind you we don’t all use the same network and solution’s like the one that BT and TalkTalk are proposing only work if they can tempt enough subscribers under the same roof to take their own mobile service.

Leave a Comment
1 Response
  1. Avatar NGA for all says:

    I once hoped Ofcom would have imposed wholesale obligations on the 2.6Ghz low powered options acquired by BT for £200m. For the sake of a lower auction yield, it would have created the opportunity for all devices to work consistently when within reach of a broadband connection equppied with a femto capability.
    The router that comes with my broadband connection should not dictate what 4G sp I use.

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