Carriers have already been rapidly installing a related indoor technology, called femtocells, to serve dead spots or crowded areas inside buildings. AT&T alone has several hundred thousand Cisco-made femtocells around the United States. (The amalgamation of all these networking technologies—traditional towers serving what are known as macro cells, femtocells, small cells, and Wi-Fi networks—are known as heterogeneous networks.)
“These smaller cells could possibly meet the data demands that we are facing with smart-phone applications,” says Narayan Mandayam, an electrical engineering professor at the Winlab, the wireless research lab at Rutgers University. “We have to do something other than what we are doing now. The carriers are already operating at a point where they are not able to meet their demands.”
The small-cell technology also answers practical problems. The traditional way of adding cellular network capacity is to do so-called cell-splitting. For example, if a given region is covered by 10 macro cells, carriers might aim to erect 10 more towers and then divide the area into 20 macro cells. But this can require costly real-estate investments and zoning battles. And from a technical perspective, it creates more radio interference at cell boundaries. By contrast, Alcatel-Lucent has engineered the light radio cube to coexist with the macro cell without interference.
The proliferation of smart phones has rapidly put the industry on crisis footing. Lately, the carriers have begun implementing data throttling. AT&T has just instituted a change to its throttling policies, now saying customers with unlimited data plans in its 3G network will face throttling only if they download three gigabytes in one month.
Part of the answer to congestion will come from new TV spectrum that is expected to be auctioned in two years under a recent deal in Washington, D.C. But adding smaller cells, and managing them smartly, will be another key solution.
“The light radio cube should help in reducing congestion,” says Yingying Chen, a computer scientist who specializes in wireless networking at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. “You need something that is being deployed other than new cell towers.”