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Mobile Networks Move Indoors

Miniature cell-phone towers can improve patchy coverage and provide super-fast data speeds.
December 1, 2010

The next step in the evolution of mobile communications may be aimed at people who are stuck in the office, not on the move.

Mini cell-phone towers, dubbed “femtocells,” can be positioned inside a building and hooked up to an Internet connection. The technology could displace wired phone systems, support mobile business devices like tablets, and enable “smart” offices that can recognize when someone shows up to work in the morning.

Some cell-phone carriers already offer femtocells to consumers with poor coverage at home. But implementing them in office buildings has been slower, because the systems need to be extremely reliable and serve larger spaces.

But the technology now seems ready for the office, says Joshua Adelson of Airvana, a femtocell manufacturer whose products are sold by Sprint in the U.S. and by the Japanese network KDDI. “Our focus, like that of the rest of the industry, has been on consumer and residential, but we’re hearing definite interest from wireless networks in using them in the office environment now.”

Ronny Haraldsvik of SpiderCloud, which sells mini cellular base stations that can be distributed throughout an office and plugged into a business’s Internet connection, says, “The wireless carriers really want to support a move away from wired phones in the next three to five years, and we have the technology to do that.”

SpiderCloud’s devices differ from consumer femtocells because each covers a larger area—with a radius of about 50 meters compared to less than 20 meters for a typical femtocell—and because they automatically work together to hand off calls as a person moves around a large building. The devices can also act like an internal phone system, routing data or calls inside a building. This provides speedier performance and puts less strain on the wider cell-phone network. “It’s as easy to install and manage as a Wi-Fi network is today,” says Haraldsvik.

Several companies, including at least one Fortune 200 business, are currently SpiderCloud’s technology, Haraldsvik says. The company’s route to market will be through carriers that will offer the technology to businesses, perhaps in return for a commitment to a particular level of service. The first such deal is expected in 2011.

As with regular cellular networks, femtocell towers are expected to handle growing quantities of wireless data. “Increasingly the business case for femtocells has come to be about data, and offering that in a business environment is certainly one of the things we are looking at,” says Roland Guegel, product manager for Sprint’s Airvana-based femtocell product, dubbed Airave, which is currently offered to consumers or small businesses.

When a cell phone or other device is connected to a femtocell it gets dramatically faster wireless data than is possible outdoors. That’s because femtocells are always close to the devices they serve (the distance between a device and its nearest cell tower limits bandwidth). Femtocells also only share out a connection with a handful of devices at once compared to a conventional cell tower, which serves a large area. “You see data throughput that you just won’t see on the network outside,” says Guegel.

That could help support data-hungry devices like tablets as business tools. “Wi-Fi is a good option, but a more ubiquitous reliable cellular network is much better,” says Guegel. “With femtocells you can walk around indoors and out and get good service anywhere.”

Vodafone, the world’s largest wireless provider, which owns a 45 percent stake in Verizon, began offering femtocells this summer to 25,000 companies that had signed up for its Vodafone Office product, which provides a range of business communications tools in the cloud.

Guegel says connecting femtocells with cloud-based business software could create new possibilities. “It’s going to become standard, and there’s the potential to add other applications and services,” he says. “How about when someone walks in the door in the morning , the network spots their phone and they are automatically logged in as being at work, or they get sent an e-mail telling them their tasks for the day?”

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