Qualcomm, the mobile phone technology firm, today announced a "significant" investment in ip.access, the Cambridge, UK-based femtocell specialist, on the same day the Femto Forum unveiled more members and an agreed standard process.
ip.access already counts Cisco as an investor, but the arrival of Qualcomm marks a big step in the development of the femtocell industry. Qualcomm has demonstrated femtocells as home-hubs, replacing Wi-Fi networks for routing multimedia content around the home as well, as linking to the mobile phone network.
This fits well with Qualcomm's operator-friendly approach. In the past the operator's best friends have always been the handset manufacturers: the latter create features from which the former can extract revenue. But they have been falling out over services, since Apple changed the rules with the iPhone. Many operators are looking for new best friends.
With last week's purchase of the UK's L-Band spectrum Qualcomm can offer mobile operators their own-brand mobile TV service: O2 and the BBC have already expressed an interest in this, the FT reports. Using femtocells, operators can offer data-intensive applications with less load on their network.
It's worth noting that Qualcomm runs the Whispernet service used by Amazon to update its electronic book, the Kindle: this is the kind of application that mobile operators want to see more of.
Trials of femtocells to date have focused on extending coverage into the home: the Femto Forum sees particular value for WiMAX networks operating at 2.6GHz, where building-penetration will be worse than today's 3G networks. But in Europe the push will be more data-centric, offering fast access to data services and multimedia content.
The 'Forum today announced it is up to 78 members, 29 of which are network operators with 810 million customers between them. The rise in network operator membership is reflected in a renewed focus on standards, to ensure that femtocells are interoperable between networks and integrated with the minimum of disruption to the core network.
Details of the femtocell standards are still under discussion, and are yet to be presented to the 3GPP and other appropriate bodies. But the agreement is significant as today's femtocells are very proprietary.
And operators are keen: they are desperate to find new revenue sources, and femtocells are an effective way to remain in control of the distribution network. Qualcomm isn't saying how much it has invested in ip.access, but any investment shows a commitment to the technology and the opportunity for Qualcomm to show operators how to make money from very small cells. ®