Femtocells and their role in metering


By Ashley Pocock

In a technology-driven intelligent home and building marketplace, where the cross-over between sectors is forcing convergence in standards, communication is high on the list for resolution. Co-existence and interoperability are key attributes for future devices targeted at the built environment, particularly where the benefits from shared infrastructure and overlap between applications can lead to significant benefits for the customer and service provider alike. The aim is to ensure not only compatibility, but also the opportunity to exchange data and leverage functionality without necessarily having to replicate applications within each device. Clearly this needs cooperation between manufacturers, service providers and the user community to establish commonality and standards, which can be used to ensure interoperability between devices.

The sectors currently most actively seeking this are communications, healthcare, entertainment, maintenance, security and energy. However, there are a large number of other applications using remotely managed electronic technology that will emerge over time.

It is as a result of this kind of initiative that “femtocells” have emerged, to provide a bridge between cellular or broadband devices, although not limited to such networks, and a local cluster of “slave” devices sharing a cellular/broadband node. The term “femtocell” according to Wikipedia, means: “A scaleable, multi-channel, two-way communication device extending a typical base station by incorporating all of the major components of the telecommunications infrastructure.”


Femtocell structure – current view

In simple terms the femtocell replicates the functionality presented by the telecom network into the home or building, effectively creating a sub-net for compatible devices. Access point base stations are an example of this kind of sub-net, by the application of Wi-Fi to enable broadband provision via a local network.

The objective of a femtocell is to enable the deployment of simple, low cost technology, which fulfils the increasing demand for open communications for the many and varied applications, both existing and new, that need remote access. Clearly, femtocells provide a convenient solution to those organisations that wish to operate devices in the home and building as part of an enterprise network, whether for voice, data or control. The current deployment of femtocell technology is already well established, with broadband hubs, wireless access points and powerline hubs all enabling replication of the broadband content via alternative mediums, and a growing number of Wi-Fi/GSM-enabled devices such as PDAs which support multiple communications platforms. Forecasts of the numbers of these portable Wi-Fi devices alone exceed 200 million in 2010 globally, with around 20 million in the UK. The UK represents some 25 percent of the demand within Europe for network enabled devices, and continues to grow due to the enthusiasm from early adopters for this technology. Forecasts for femtocells by ABI Research indicate over 100 million users by 2011.

The goal is that femtocells will improve coverage and use scarce spectrum more efficiently, and could result in cheaper calls with free local data traffic. Femtocells would increase the number of cellular base stations but reduce radiation because of the lower power and shorter range, answering fears about real or imagined health effects. They would also give mobile operators a foothold in the digital home.

So how does all of this benefit the metering market? The tendency of the utility sector has historically been to exploit bespoke solutions and systems to meet its needs. This has led to unique outcomes, generally incompatible with other market sectors, and perhaps more significantly, within the sector itself!


Femtocell structure – metering and beyond

Some utilities have tried to embrace cross-industry solutions, and the provision of added value services, but this has not been a common theme. In this approach the utility carries the full cost of deployment and support for the infrastructure, whilst benefiting from full control of how it is used, developed and maintained. The downside is that the opportunity to share the cost of deployment and support is lost, coupled to the tendency not to invest further in existing infrastructure until the asset has been “sweated”, and this leads to loss of progression in service delivery and innovation. It is fair to observe that in the risk averse world of utilities, the idea of not fixing the specification for long-term investments is a difficult bridge to cross. However, the need for change is now driving a different paradigm for the sector, so maybe the appetite for cross-industry alliances can emerge.

Femtocells may be one of the triggers for this cooperation. The principle of sharing a node/gateway supporting multiple applications could fulfil utility ambitions for data collection, messaging, tariff configuration, presentation of energy and carbon data to the customer, and provide a dynamic link for demand management via other equipment in the building. Providing femtocells can ensure a robust, backward compatible operating environment, which could be eminently suitable for energy and water applications. Issues of open architecture standards and physical standards would need to be resolved, but both are currently being actively progressed by various standards organisations globally, and specifically by The Application Home Initiative (TAHI) in the UK and the Femtocell Forum in the USA.

The world of metering is changing. The advent of smart meters, which look increasingly like intelligent network nodes, suggests that convergence with other home and building based technology is inevitable, and the need for compatibility with common communications infrastructures even more important if utility ambitions are to be delivered. Ubiquitous computing is fast becoming the name of the game, and one of the keys to success for the utility sector is to engage with the rising customer appetite for in-home and in-building technology and respond to the market pull with the provision of equipment that fits within the open architectural landscape.

This does require the industry to continue to change its perspective on how to specify and implement metering systems. The days of bespoke protocols and standards need to be put behind us, and a more inclusive approach adopted, which allows full engagement with the rapidly developing technology market, support for open architecture initiatives, and participation in development programmes and standardisation.


Femtocell structure – future convergence

International governments have recognised the importance of this for some years, and specifically within Europe, the European Commission and various national governments have provided funding to stimulate research, development and demonstration in this area. TAHI, the European Application Home Alliance (TEAHA), MonAMI, and the Homes Project are a few examples of collaborative research projects funded by government which have led or are leading to successful demonstration/trials of interconnected networks, service aggregation, equipment management, and the administrative super structure that will be need to provide governance.

The concept of femtocell topography does, however, present some challenges to the utilities, industry participants and manufacturers, beyond their specification and deployment. Ownership and right of use become key factors in the commercial structure, combined with ensuring connectivity, despite customer factors such as inadvertent or deliberate disconnection. In addition, developing a manageable set of taxonomies to enable recovery of costs incurred in supporting/maintaining any non-customer funded shared infrastructure, and linking this with commercial agreements, will require careful design and implementation.

Extensive use of the femtocell principle will require a detailed understanding of the risks, limitations and capabilities of this kind of technology, and issues such as network security, device tampering, quality of service, performance and impact on business continuity and disaster recovery will all have to be considered.

So does this lead us to the logical conclusion that has been the topic of so many debates over the years – “the meter as a gateway?” Not necessarily, as the “market pull” for pervasive computing as demonstrated by triple and now quad play is creating the foundations for new applications to be delivered by third-party gateways and hubs. However, the meter does provide an “always on” asset, which may hold the key to applications that require robust connectivity.

Can the utility sectors relax and await the delivery of these structures? No, clearly not – if they are to be turned to the benefit of the sector, they need to be embedded within the strategic planning, and full engagement is needed with the relevant associations, alliances and standards bodies to ensure that the functionality, service level agreements, and associated investment are all available and that the target customer and utility benefits can be realised.