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Small Cells: Not Just for Getting 5 Bars at Home Anymore

Small cells and especially the so-called femtocells that are currently used by mobile phone carriers to give their customers an option to fix bad reception in their homes. Slowly, though, it's becoming clear that these devices, which basically put a little cell phone antenna and base station in your house and then route data and calls through your wired Internet connection, will be able to do quite a bit more than just ensure that you get five bars on your cell phone when you are home. At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Alcatel-Lucent and other infrastructure providers to the carriers are now looking at other features that these cells can enable as well.

Today, I had a chance to talk to David Swift, Alcatel-Lucent's senior manager for product marketing small cell solutions, about the additional features that small cells and especially femtocells can enable.

What Are Femtocells Anyway?

When the telecom industry talks about small cells, it generally refers to two different kind of small base stations. The first are metro cells, which can cover small areas like a town square or a football stadium and provide cell-phone users there with enough coverage and bandwidth. The other group covers small femtocells which can be used in homes or businesses to provide better coverage and to offload traffic from the wider network. As Swift pointed out, the best way to think of these cells is as layers that are part of the general cell-phone network. The smallest of these devices is no larger than a small router and can be plugged right into any power outlet (see picture below). Some manufacturers like Netgear are also working on combining cable modems, wireless routers and femtocells into one device.

According to some analysts, the number of these cells in use will grow to somewhere around 62 million within the next three years.

Going Beyond 5 Bars

One advantage of these small cells, said Swift, is that they can now be used to provide location-based services. Your house could automatically turn on the lights or open the garage door for you, for example, when your phone is close enough to connect to the local network. Shopping malls and other venues could provide you with incentives or extra services when they sense that you are close.

On its stand here in Barcelona, Alcatel-Lucent is showing an augmented reality app, for example, that can alert users of deals and then point them to the right stores. This system would use the local small cells to triangulate your position with better accuracy than GPS, which doesn't work reliably indoors. This is somewhat similar to how others are doing indoor navigation today with the help of WiFi signals and there is no reason why developers couldn't combine both data sources to provide even more accurate indoor navigation.

With these small cells in place, carriers could also offer their customers additional services as well. Say you download a lot of podcasts, for example. Chances are, you don't want to download all of this data on the regular mobile network, but what if you could initiate the download on the go and then your phone would know when you are home and just download all the data later. You could do the same for large videos or apps, too.

Payments

Outside of the home, there are also interesting applications for this. A very low-power cell, for example, could enable an NFC payment solution without the need for special chips inside a phone and mobile carriers could enable you to use the equivalent of carrier billing to pay your groceries by just holding your phone against a very low-powered cell that only has a range of a centimeter or so.

Small cells were one of the hot topics at the Mobile World Congress this year. While at first it may seem like this technology is just about ensuring better reception for your phone, these little base stations and their larger brethren, the metro cells, could actually enable quite a few new applications and services in the very near future.

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