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Wireless Advances Could Mean No More Cell Towers

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Small cellular antennas, about the size of a Rubik’s cube, could be placed indoors or out and be easily hidden from view. And the smaller cells can boost a network’s capacity tenfold…

By Peter Svensson, Associated Press Posted Apr 4, 2011

Cell Tower As cellphones have spread, so have large cell towers — those unsightly stalks of steel topped by transmitters and other electronics that sprouted across the country over the last decade.

Now the wireless industry is planning a future without them, or at least without many more of them. Instead, it’s looking at much smaller antennas, some tiny enough to hold in a hand. These could be placed on lampposts, utility poles and buildings — virtually anywhere with electrical and network connections.

If the technology overcomes some hurdles, it could upend the wireless industry and offer seamless service, with fewer dead spots and faster data speeds.

Some big names in the wireless world demonstrated “small cell” technologies at the recent Mobile World Congress, the world’s largest cell phone trade show.

“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.”

Cubing the antenna

Alcatel-Lucent has developed the “lightRadio cube,” a cellular antenna about the size and shape of a Rubik’s cube, vastly smaller than the ironing-board-size antennas that now decorate cell towers.

In Alcatel-Lucent’s vision, these little cubes could soon begin replacing conventional cell towers. Single cubes or clusters could be placed indoors or out and be easily hidden from view. All they need is electrical power and an optical fiber connecting them to the phone company’s network.

The cube, Sweldens said, can make the notion of a conventional cell tower “go away.” Alcatel-Lucent will start trials of the cube with carriers in September. The company hopes to make it commercially available next year.

For cell phone companies, the benefits of dividing their networks into smaller cells, each served by something like the cube antenna, go far beyond aesthetics. Smaller cells mean vastly higher capacity for calls and data traffic.

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’s less competition for the cell tower’s attention.

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’s 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., said smaller cells can boost a network’s capacity tenfold.

Phone companies already have been deploying older generations of small-cell technology in areas where a lot of people gather, like airports, train stations and sports stadiums, but these are expensive and complicated to install.

In New York City, AT&T Inc. has started creating a network of outdoor Wi-Fi hot spots, starting in Times Square and now spreading through the midtown tourist and shopping districts. Its network has been hammered by an onslaught of data-hungry iPhone users, and this is one way of moving that traffic off the cellular network.

Small cells, big coverage

Smaller cells could do the same job, but for all phones, not just those enabled with Wi-Fi like the iPhone. They could also carry calls as well as data.

LM Ericsson AB, the Swedish company that’s the largest maker of wireless network equipment in the world, also introduced a more compact antenna at the show, one it calls “the first stepping stone towards a heterogeneous network.”

Small cellular base stations have already penetrated hundreds of thousands of U.S. homes. Phone companies like AT&T, Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel Corp. have for several years 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.

British femtocell maker Ubiquisys Ltd. was in Barcelona to demonstrate the smallest cell yet.

It’s the size of a thumb and plugs into a computer’s USB drive. According to Ubiquisys, the idea is that overseas travelers will plug it into their Internet-connected laptops to make calls as if they were on their home network, but there are potential problems with interference if used that way.

According to Rupert Baines, marketing head of Picochip Ltd., a more realistic application for a tiny plug-in cell is to make it work with cable boxes or Internet routers, to convert them into femtocells.

A key part of the “small cell” idea is to take femtocells outside the home, into larger buildings and even outdoors.

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

When a lot of phones talk to the same tower, they all have to “shout” to make themselves heard, using more energy. With a smaller cell, phones can lower their “voices,” much like a group of people moving from a noisy ballroom to a smaller, quieter room.

“Ultimately, what you end up with is a cleaner signal, with less power,” Sideco said.

Article by Peter Svensson, Technical Writer, Associated Press

Posted in Science and Transportation Tags ,
  • sajan kota

    Looking for forward for the world with no Cell towers, I am glad that there are others who share the same feelings.

  • Stephen Murray

    So glad they are getting rid of cell towers as i believe they do nothing but damage the enviroment and our health. This is coming from a man that has his own dual sim phones website.

  • cloud computing

    Nice Info . Do you mind if I talk about this post in my blog. You and your blog will surely get the credit.

  • majal

    I hope it will happen right away, so that no more cancer coming from cell phone radiation could take place. Good job and keep on doing well for others.

  • BettyLowe

    Considering the amount of individuals who are enrolling in online education courses, this would be great functionality wise. You could take class anywhere- even in the woods! I also like the idea of not having so many of those ugly towers, I was out west at Yellowstone, and you could see them in trees and stuff. This would at least look more natural than that!

  • Faizan

    Then all the naysayers will be crying about even more radiation poisoning going with all the more antennas going up.

  • This will certainly free up some land and some resources, but if it is widely implemented, think of the repercussions. Never again will there be a horror movie driven to higher excitement by a cellphone with a dead signal.

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