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Mini Cell Phone Towers, Big Impact on the Future of Mobile Apps

Major telecoms push for portable, personal base stations to offload growing network traffic
femtocell,telecom,mobile, apps



COURTESY OF ILDAR SAGDEJEV, VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—In preparation for a keynote about the future of mobile technology at Technology Review's Emerging Technologies (EmTech) conference here Wednesday, four panelists had been asked to bring their favorite gadget with them onstage. One might have expected the keynote to become a show-and-tell about Apple's iPad or iPhone 4, or even the latest e-reader. Instead, each of the panelists revealed devices that were slight variations on the same idea—a portable base station used to boost wireless signals.

These might not seem like surprising choices, given that three of the panelists work for telecom companies (Alcatel-Lucent, Bell Labs and Qualcomm), but their selections do say a lot about their preoccupation with the need to somehow supply the bandwidth needed to support all of those fancy multimedia mobile apps that Apple, Google and others are delivering.

"We're looking for ways to relieve network congestion," said Matt Grob, Qualcomm's senior vice president for research and development, who brought onstage a femtocell base station the size of a TV remote. Femtocells are essentially portable cell phone towers used in homes and offices designed to provide an enhanced signal within a 10-meter radius around the device. "We can't just go back to the same methods that we did before," Grob added, in reference to the telecom industries history of building out expensive infrastructure without any guarantee that it will be used to capacity.

Alice White, a vice president at Bell Labs (which is now part of Alcatel-Lucent), likewise brought a small femtocell device onstage. In five years, 40 percent of phones will be smart phones capable of running multimedia apps, she said. Emily Green, president and CEO of the Yankee Group research firm, chose her Sprint Overdrive mobile hotspot as her favorite gadget because, she said, it could pick up 3G and even 4G (where available) signals in her car, turning it into a mobile network. Vanu Bose, president and CEO of the eponymously named Vanu Inc., presented his company's mobile phone base station, which is designed specifically for outdoor deployments and can be rigged to operate off of solar power if other power sources aren't available.

Portable, personal base stations represent a major push by the telecom industry to create a mini infrastructure that it hopes can help satisfy the seemingly insatiable demand for viewing large multimedia files (in particular, Web-based video) using handheld devices, a recurring theme at EmTech on Wednesday. "Wireless has been the fastest adopted technology in history," Sprint CEO Dan Hesse said during his keynote later in the day. "There are more cell phones in use today than TVs, PCs and cars combined."

Femtocells are designed to fill in "coverage holes" that often occur in homes and small businesses, Jonathan Segel, executive director of Alcatel-Lucent's CTO Group, noted during his EmTech presentation Wednesday about mobile apps. In addition, he pointed out that cities have begun to turn to "metro cells" (which provide a range of several kilometers) to offload data traffic in densely populated areas.

Research firm IDATE last week published a report about femtocells indicating that in 2014 about 23 million femtocell devices would be sold worldwide for a total market of nearly $1.25 billion. Each of the major carriers (AT&T, Sprint and Verizon) sells femtocells, with Sprint announcing last week that it has started giving away the devices for free to some subscribers with weak 3G coverage. Femtocells generally cost between $150 and $250.

The trend over time is for mobile phone cells to continue to shrink while providing better service to wireless users. "Because your phone isn't having to shout [to reach a cell tower], your battery life is better," according to Rupert Baines, vice president of marketing for picoChip, a maker of chips used in femtocells. "If the signal doesn't have to go too far you'll get better quality, you're covering less people with each base station and each person is getting more capacity." PicoChip recently introduced a new processor designed to boost even small portable base station signals so they can be used in a variety of public spaces, including shopping malls and airports.

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