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David Zax

A View from David Zax

A Tiny Base Station Makes Dumb Phones Smarter

Bringing smartphone-like services to the humble feature phone.

  • November 13, 2012

Paul Marks of New Scientist has an interesting report on what may be the world’s smallest cell phone base station. Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, the UK firm that developed the basestation says that “it’s an entire GSM network running on one circuit board.”

GSM, as you probably know, is a standard set characterizing 2G cellular networks. Why do we even care about 2G networks today, when many of us are already onto 4G, while only suckers like myself are still stuck on 3G? We must remember those less fortunate than us; Marks points out that a billion people still use 2G. More to the point, that’s a massive market for whom it would behoove technology companies to provide new services for (see “Making ‘Dumb’ Phones Smarter and Faster”).

What’s the point of miniaturizing a base station anyway? It could enable merchants and others to provide services we typically associate with newer-generation smartphones available for those still hanging back on 2G. Take wireless payments, for instance. If you use a digital wallet today, you’re probably relying on some newfangled near-field communications tech (see “Apps Could Turn Your Smart Phone Into a Wallet”).

But a mini-base station can achieve the same effect with different technology. The base station, called “Sidewinder” (it’s a product of Cambridge Consultants Limited) can connect eight 2G cellphones. You can reduce the circuit’s power and range dramatically, for security purposes. That way if you perform a transaction, it’s unlikely to be intercepted by hackers (unless they’re right next to you, in which case you should be on guard against pickpockets, anyway). “We can detect the proximity of those old phones and deliver a number of services to them securely,” Cambridge Consultants Limited’s Monty Barlow told New Scientist.

For more specs on Sidewinder, click through to Cambridge Consultants’ site (pdf).

As most money pours into the smartphone market, there’s still plenty of opportunity to be explored with so-called “dumb” phones. The Sydney Morning Herald went so far lately as to say the “smart” money’s actually in dumb phones. They remain popular among shallow-pocketed teenagers. And the mini-base station isn’t the only example of clever workarounds to create smartphone-like services for feature phones; here’s an example of bringing GPS capability to those devices.

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