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Future Of Cell Towers Looks ‘Small’

February 13, 2011

Some big names in the wireless world are set to demonstrate “small cell” technologies at the Mobile World Congress, the world’s largest cell phone trade show, which starts Monday in Barcelona, Spain.

These new technologies could be placed on lampposts, utility poles and buildings in order to help lose the large cell towers currently used. 

“We see more and more towers that become bigger and bigger, with more and bigger antennas that come to obstruct our view and clutter our landscape and are simply ugly,” said Wim Sweldens, president of the wireless division of Alcatel-Lucent, the French-U.S. maker of telecommunications equipment.

“What we have realized is that we, as one of the major mobile equipment vendors, are partially if not mostly to blame for this,” Sweldens told Associated Press (AP) reporter Peter Svensson.

Alcatel-Lucent will be at the show demonstrating its “lightRadio cube,” which is a cellular antenna about the size of a Rubik’s cube.

These cubes could soon replace conventional cell towers and could be placed indoors or out to easily be hidden from view.  All they need is electrical power and an optical fiber connecting them to the phone company’s network.

Sweldens said the cube can make the notion of a conventional cell tower “go away.”

“LightRadio is a smart solution to a tough set of problems: high energy costs, the explosion of video on mobile, and connecting the unconnected,” said Ben Verwaayen, the chief executive of Alcatel-Lucent, to PC Magazine’s Mark Hachman.

Instead of having all phones within a mile or two connect to the same cell tower, the traffic could be divided between several smaller cells, so there is less competition for the cell tower’s attention.

“If it is what they claim, lightRadio could be a highly disruptive force within the wireless industry,” said Dan Hays, who focuses on telecommunications at consulting firm PRTM.

Rasmus Hellberg, director of technical marketing at wireless technology developer Qualcomm Inc., told Svensson that smaller cells can boost a network’s capacity tenfold.

They have already been deploying older generations of small-cell technology in areas where a lot of people gather.

Qualcomm will also be at the Barcelona show with a live demonstration of how “heterogeneous networks,” which is a network that mix big and small cells.

“That’s an impediment that we’re seeing many operators struggling with right now as data volumes have increased,” Hays told AP.

LM Ericsson is introducing a more compact antenna at the show that calls for “the first stepping stone towards a heterogeneous network.”

Phones companies like AT&T, Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel Corp. have been selling “femtocells,” which are about the size of a Wi-Fi router and connect to the phone company’s network through a home broadband connection.

The cells project radio signals that cover a room or two, providing five bars of coverage where there might otherwise be none.

Analyst Francis Sideco of research firm iSuppli pointed out a surprising consumer benefit of smaller cells: better battery life in phones.

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