Minor miracle amid mobile data tsunami

Mobile base station
Image via Wikipedia

As mobile devices gobble up ever more data, workarounds to help networks cope with choke-points in capacity are starting to emerge.

Now talking deep-tech on cell tower capacity and backhaul capability passeth all understanding as far as I’m concerned; it’s also about as much fun as discussing the tappet settings on your car.

Be that as it may, it’s important – especially if you’ve ever bitched about reception blackspots and poor connectivity – so bear with me while I try to explain.

Alcatel-Lucent has unveiled a new mobile base station called lightRadio which it says represents a breakthrough in infrastructure thinking. Suppress the yawn and try to stay with me.

This base station is tiny. It’s a squashed down cube that fits in the palm of the hand. And while it’s not much to look at, it’s a miracle of engineering for which there are 900 patents, granted or applied for.

So what’s so marvellous about it? It shrinks base station and cell towers to something discrete which can be fitted on the side of buildings. It cuts energy consumption making it cheaper and greener. And it promises big savings in ownership costs for network operators.

So, rather than building more masts and towers with all the associated costs and permission problems, this should make it easier for telecom companies to integrate and extend their networks.

It’s not a panacea – core networks still need to be scaled up in the face of Cisco’s predicted 26-fold increase in bandwidth demand by 2015 – but it should bring a better quality of service.

Separately, Nokia is unveiling Smart WLAN at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, an automatic system to seamlessly switch traffic between cellular broadband and wifi to extend capacity.

It’s something likely to be especially valuable in hotspot areas like conventions, sporting arenas or commuter routes which experience big tides of traffic.

And at the end of last month O2 revealed plans to double its wifi hotspots and to make sign-on much simpler.

UK Chief Executive Ronan Dunne said in a blog post: “O2 wifi will address the many shortcomings in the way most wifi hotspots work.

“You won’t need to buy a coffee to use it and it won’t matter what simcard is in your phone. You’ll only ever need to sign in once and then our network will remember you, wherever you go.”

Business Development Director Tim Sefton reckons only 20% of people who have access to free public wifi on O2 tariffs actively use it despite the majority of devices being wifi enabled.

“We know that wifi as a technology has great potential and can be a very fast service, however customers are discouraged by barriers which include complexity in activation, uncertainty of where wifi is free and the variable quality of the current experience.”

O2 is increasing investment in its mobile network by 25% in the year ahead as tablets and portable devices stoke demand.

In the fight to keep existing customers and to win new business the battleground for mobile operators is increasingly becoming focused on quality of service.

Getting investment and build cycles in sync with consumer expectations, while keeping an eye on competitors is a complex juggling act, and for those who get it wrong the consequences will be very damaging.


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