Mini cell tower could make mobiles as reliable as WiFi indoors

Multi-carrier femtocell may let companies control their own cell access

Alcatel-Lucent announced a new cell-phone network radio that could make it cheaper and more convenient for both carriers and end-user companies to support cell networks from more than one carrier.

The lightRadio is designed to connect 2G, 3G and LTE cell networks within a single, cube-shaped multifrequency access points that come with their own Wideband Active Array Antenna that would allow the devices to be mounted on existing cell-phone towers, unobtrusively on streetlight poles or other structures, or inside large buildings.

Bell Labs, which developed the unit, predicts it will be able to halve energy consumption for wireless networks (which are incredibly wasteful of power because they work by pulling energy from power lines and broadcasting it out as radio waves), reduce the TCO of mobile networks by half and make it easier to expand broadband access into rural areas by providing less expensive, more efficient access points to cover last-mile connections.

It's not available yet, though. Alcatel-Lucent predicts it will go into customer trials during the second half of this year.

It will be hitting the market at a time when femtocells – privately owned, short-distance cell-phone receiver/repeaters such as Verizon's Network Extender and Sprint's AirReave – are selling like hotcakes as both consumers and businesses realize the value of owning mini cell towers they can locate anywhere they need better coverage.

Femtocells, which currently work with only one carrier's network at a time, pick up cell-phone signals within a short distance and connect the call to a wired broadband connection.

The number of femtocells deployed by carriers in the U.S. outnumbers normal tower-mounted macrocells by 350,000 to 256,000 according to an October report from the FemtoForum industry consortium.

Most are installed to boost a carrier's coverage or bridge dead spots using a small, inexpensive piece of equipment rather than a tower-based macrocell.

The real growth opportunity is in the consumer and corporate market, however. Another Femto Forum survey showed 60 percent of consumers wanted a femtocell once they understood what it did, but only 10 percent were aware they existed before a surveyor explained the concept.

A December report from Informa Telecoms & Media predicted the end-user femtocell market would grow from essentially nothing at the beginning of 2009 to more than 49 million active femtocell access points by 2014.

I've used units from both Sprint and Verizon, and the difference is astonishing. The biggest drawback is that each works with only one carrier. That's fine for you, or for your end users, if they don't use their own contracts for their BYOT mobile devices.

If they do (Yes, they do.), something like the Alcatel-Lucent box would let you install one femtocell at each access point rather than three or four. Much easier, much cheaper, much better coverage.

Can't wait to see more like this.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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