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Thursday, 28 July 2011 16:19

Optus makes 3G Home Zone femtocell widely available


Optus has formally launched its femtocell offering, first introduced as a commercial pilot with limited availability in April, under the name Optus 3G Home Zone.

Despite the ballyhoo around the event - which was billed as ""the biggest development in home telephony for decades," and described by the managing director of Optus Consumer, Michael Smith as "the biggest challenge to the Australian home phone since services began nearly 130 years ago" - there were no major differences from the pilot offering, except pricing and wider availability.

For some customers it got better: the unit is now $5 per month on a $59 per month plan and above where it was $79 and above previously. And for others it has got worse. For lower cost plans and for prepaid customers the unit now costs $15 per month. Previously $49 plan customers could get it for $10 per month.

The other good news is that a $59 per month user and above can get unlimited calls to standard national and mobile Australian numbers.

Up to 12 Optus mobiles can be registered to the femtocell and up to four can use it simultaneously but only one can get the unlimited calls. Anyone accessing the Internet from their mobile phone or wireless broadband devices through the femtocell will consume both their mobile broadband data quota and that of their fixed line broadband service.

The service is available in all capital cities and "many major town centres throughout Australia." It works on any ISP's broadband service but Optus says a minimum of 1Mbps/512Mbps is needed to support four users and a minimum of 128/128kbps for a single user, and ADSL1 plans are not suitable.

When users make a call if it is routed through the femtocell they will hear three beeps, and if they move out of range of the cell the call will hand over to the main Optus mobile network. However calls initiated on the main network will remain on that network.


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Optus will kick of its marketing campaign for the 3G Home Zone this weekend with two TV commercials, focussing on improved in home coverage as the main benefit - encapsulated in the slogan "get five bars". According to Optus, in most homes the unit should be able to deliver five bars of signal over a distance of 30 metres.

Optus has given no indication of expected uptake of the 3G Home Zone - it had about 200 users on the commercial pilot, but unless coverage in the home is particularly poor it seems unlikely that many customers will be attracted to the service, at $15 per month on a two year contract - which will not be synchronised with their existing Optus contract.

Included call value on higher priced plans is becoming increasingly generous as competition intensifies (Optus MVNO Amaysim for example offer unlimited calls for $39.90 per month) so for customers on $59 and above plans the unlimited call offer might not have great appeal.

Optus however has made clear that what is on offer today is very much a first cut at the service and changes are in the pipeline. For example the unlimited call offer is billed as a limited time offer to 31 August but Optus has indicated that it will be replaced with something at least equally attractive.

One of the most appealing features of the unit for customers, if the in-home tariffing is sufficiently attractive, could be that it removes the price barrier to using the mobile phone. For most people their mobile device has all their contact information is likely to be their preferred option for making calls - all other things being equal.

And while the initial pricing offers no concessions for multiple users this is likely to come, enabling Optus, potentially, to persuade entire households to churn to the Optus network.

However there is another perhaps more significant benefit for Optus: every femtocell installed takes traffic off the main Optus network freeing up capacity for other users and delaying the need to upgrade.


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In mid 2009 the Femto Forum released a research paper which found that the cost savings associated with offloading as little as 1.4GB of HSPA data per month via a femtocell from a coverage-constrained macro cellular network would justify an operator offering a subscriber a free femtocell.

"For a small but rapidly growing segment of heavy wireless data users an operator can easily halve the cost of delivering wireless data at home or in the office by offloading traffic from the macro cellular network onto a femtocell," it concluded.

And earlier this year Wim Sweldens, president of Alcatel-Lucent's wireless activities, said: "The main driver of small cells adoption today is the delivery of crystal-clear voice services to buildings or areas that used to be 'blind' to the macro network. However, both residential and business users are quickly discovering the benefits from the increased mobile data capacity as well'¦Studies by Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs show that - versus classic Pico or DAS [distributed antenna system] solutions - small cells are not only cheaper by more than 60 percent, but also enable in-building mobile coverage much faster than any other solution." Alcatel-Lucent is the supplier of Optus' femtocells.

There is also great scope for femtocell delivered value-added services. In March this year The Femto Forum, the industry and operator association that supports femtocell deployment worldwide, published a set of application programming interface (API) specifications that will enable mobile network operators to make applications that are 'femtocell aware' or femtocell specific.

The Femto Forum's vice-chairman and head of its Services Special Interest Group, Andy Germano, said: "There is a major opportunity for operators to start offering unique new applications. Already in Japan, we are seeing mobile operators offering commercial, revenue-generating applications that send an SMS to parents when children arrive home from school. The number of potential applications enabled by this new and exciting API is literally endless."

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