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Portable, personal 3G base stations to shrink, play a big role in 4G LTE network rollouts

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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communications, wireless, PicochipOver the past two years, telecommunications carriers have come to endorse, and even sell, portable base stations called femtocells (or, depending up on the vendor, picocells or microcells) used to boost wireless 3G signals to smart phones and other wireless devices in areas where network coverage is poor. New developments in femtocells—essentially desktop cell phone towers used in homes and offices to enhance a signal within a 10- to 200-meter radius around the device—are expected to shrink down the technology from the size of a book to that of a USB thumb drive no more than a few centimeters long and play a significant role in the adoption of 4G networks.

Picochip, a U.K.-based maker of chips used to power portable base stations made by Ubiquisys, ip.access and Alcatel-Lucent, recently introduced the smallest processor in its lineup, capable of fitting in a 12-millimeter-square package. The small size of this picoXcell processor, set to begin shipping to femtocell makers by the end of the year, could lead to cell signal boosters that plug into a laptop USB port and support as many as eight smart phones wherever the laptop goes. Of course, these USB-pluggable devices could also be inserted into desktop computers, cable modems and set-top boxes—any network-connected device with a USB port—to improve a home’s cell phone voice and data coverage.

The telecom industry is promoting portable base stations as a way to create a mini infrastructure will hopefully help satisfy the seemingly insatiable demand for viewing large multimedia files (in particular, Web-based video) using handheld devices while also alleviating some traffic from main cell phone networks. The idea is that AT&T, Verizon and other carriers wouldn’t have to invest as much in expanding their core infrastructure. Different types of portable base stations are designed to produce signals of different strengths, covering a radius of anywhere from 2 kilometers to less than a few meters.

Another advance in femtocell technology is the ability to boost 4G Long-Term Evolution (LTE) network signals, something Picochip is promising via an LTE femtocell base station the company calls eNodeB, about the size of a hardcover book. Given the nascent state of LTE networks, it may be a few years before smart phone users start looking for LTE femtocells, but the company thinks that carriers might start selling them as LTE networks expand. Verizon, which launched its LTE network in December in 38 U.S. markets, plans to expand to an additional 140 markets by the end of this year. AT&T is planning to begin rolling out its 4G LTE network later this year.

About 1.3 million femtocells shipped in 2010, and that number is projected to grow to 70.2 million in 2015, according to Allied Business Intelligence, Inc., an Oyster Bay, N.Y.-based research firm. Research firm IDATE in September published a report about femtocells with a more conservative estimate 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—Sprint last year said it would give away the devices for free to some subscribers with weak 3G coverage. Femtocells generally cost between $150 and $250.

Image of Picochip’s smallest processor (right) in a dongle-sized prototype device courtesy of Picochip

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  1. 1. JamesDavis 3:43 pm 02/7/2011

    Fantastic! Get them to us, we are ready. I think I will switch over to Sprint, if they ever get coverage in my area, and get that stuff free. AT&T and Verizon will charge me an arm and leg for it. Way to go Sprint!

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  2. 2. rbmayer 5:18 pm 02/7/2011

    femtocells don’t "boost" your carrier’s signal so much as they generate a small independent coverage area in your home or office. Boosting implies receiving and amplifying a signal between two transmitter/receivers. That’s not what’s going on with femtocells. Although the end effect in both cases is a better quality phone connection, there is an important difference – who bears the cost of connecting the femtocell to the operator’s network so you can terminate your phone call. With a traditional femtocell, the mobile operator hitches a free ride on your personal broadband connection to the internet to get your call traffic to their network. If your femtocell isn’t connected to an internet connection, you have nothing. This article is less than clear on that point.

    3G/4G hotspot services from Sprint or Clearwire work a little differently. The wireless carrier is actually providing the backhaul to their network through a wireless 3G or WiMax connection. The devices they sell to share that backhaul connection locally are usually called mobile hotspots or access points rather than femtocells.

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  3. 3. sethdayal 8:45 pm 02/7/2011

    So the cell phone companies want to keep the ludicrous profits rollin’ in by getting us suckers to supply our own IP connection then paying them to use it.

    How about lets try another way.

    We could build a dirt cheap universally available pretty good but not perfect 300 MBs broadband wireless network that could be up and running in a year or so for maybe $2 a month a subscriber. We’ll call it the workin’ man’s network built for people disgusted with corrupt lying politicians, "journalists" and the attorneys who run Big Telecom.

    Here’s how. We pass legislation requiring Big Telecom as a condition of license that they ,not us, install a bulk purchased $200 a unit outdoor dual band wireless units on every street block in every neighborhood in the USA serviced by the top of line $50 a month average 30 Mbs highest speed innernet service Big Telecom offers. Each unit would supply 50 roughly households. Telecoms would be allowed to recover costs on an audited cost of service basis.

    There are 110 Million households in the USA so total cost would be about $500M less than Big Telecom spends annually buying booze for compliant FCC members, "journalists" and politicians. $500M financed at 10% plus $50 a month for the network with 50% broadband penetration works out to about two bucks a month per subscriber.

    95% of the population centers of the country would be wirelessly connected with the rest covered with current 3g/4g Big Telecom offering.

    Public power companies of course could provide the same service at a much lower cost but at 1 GigE with the new fiber builds required for their smart metering options and a wired extension from the block router to subscribers.

    Only corrupt politicians stand between the people and dirt cheap universal broadband access. Give them a call and ask why.

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  4. 4. focalist 6:14 am 02/8/2011

    Seth, you are 100% correct.. but a little common sense tells any of us that Big Telco is operating at too high a profit: Just how many cell phone stores are needed (and can be supported) in a single retail mall?

    For example, a local mall outside Boston, with a total of around sixty stores, has TWO Verizon stores (both cell phones only), an AT&T cell store, and an Apple store, and then Kiosks for Sprint and TMobile. Of the full stores in the mall, four of sixty are cell stores.. this doesn’t include Best Buy "mobile express" store and many retailers (Sears, etc) have their own cell phone counters. So, to be clear, the two largest local malls (The Natick Collection- highest per square foot profit mall in the USA… and Solomon Pond Mall, about ten miles away) dedicate roughly 10% of their overall space to CELL PHONE RETAILERS.. and they ALL make enough to stay in business.

    If 10% of the local retail economy, in one of the highest profit localities in the world (Boston) is "supportable" only by profit of the cell phone companies.. That’s a huge, and terrifying, economic problem.

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  5. 5. richard904 5:24 pm 02/8/2011

    If I have a good broadband connection, then I am fine. However, if the best I can get is Sprint 3G for Internet connectivity in my area, what good does this do me? There is a big problem for people just outside a broadband area, and these devices are like parasites sitting on a true broadband Internet network making life much easier for the wireless carriers, but in no way expanding broadband to a large group that cannot get it now.

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