ThinkPanmure released a bulletin this week speculating that networking stalwart Cisco had plans to enter the femtocell fray via the potential acquisition of equipment vendor iP.access.

If the plans prove true, is this another Navini move for Cisco? I’d say not. An acquisition like this would symbolize a new vector in the vendor’s network equipment strategy. This move would take Cisco equipment in a place where it has not (at least officially) gone before; extending the cellular networks that are of increasing importance to businesses, especially those with a high percentage of mobile workers.

I say “not officially” since Linksys routers are, at this moment, powering Wi-Fi calling for many users of T-Mobile’s HotSpot@Home UMA Service, currently on offer in the US. The speculation of a Cisco femtocell acquisition points to the ready availability of dual-mode phones and the proven nature of UMA. While I’ve written multiple times in the past about the availability and attractiveness of a dual-mode calling solution, this is most often in the context of an organization looking to drive higher returns from its WLAN investment. The use of dual-mode handsets in organizations presumes a widely available and properly deployed WLAN solution. Based on anecdotal data, we know that this not the case in most organizations.

Going a step further, Cisco’s partnerships with vendors such as Nokia to empower handsets to make use of the WLAN for cheaper, single device calling inside the enterprise do not offer WLAN to Cellular handoff at the moment, so it is reasonable to believe that Cisco is focused on solutions that will drive a greater portion; femtocells would accomplish this, UMA would not.
In the end, Cisco buying a femtocell concern would:

  • Ensure that more voice traffic from carriers is made IP-ready, if not pushed entirely to an IP-network, which could spur IP-based networking investment from carriers – good for Cisco,
  • Create a force behind IP-backhauled femtocells making them a more attractive choice over UMA for carriers already reluctant to support Dual-Mode devices, and,
  • Allow Cisco to have another point of entry to the consumer’s home, adding to its Linksys router and switch offerings and its Scientific-Atlanta set-top-boxes.

For IT this could add up to a groundswell of support for IP-based femtocells offering solutions for organizations seeking deeper penetration of cellular coverage. The solution would eschew the potential choice-limiting move to dual-mode handsets, avoid the potential support headaches of familiarizing users with WLAN-based calling and handover and avoid carrier changeover to find a voice providers that can reliably offer service in all campus areas where it is needed. Lastly, the consumer-lead on femtocells, which seems the likely route, indicates a low-cost network augmentation product that boosts cellular coverage; after all a handful of IP-based femtocells have to be cheaper than investing in a distributed antenna system.

By Chris Silva

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