Mini Cell Phone Towers and the Future of Mobile Apps

A strange thing happened on the way to a Technology Review keynote the other day. Four like-minded panelists unveiled their favorite gadgets; and before you jump to any conclusions, it was neither the iPad nor the super-awesome new iPod Touch (which I prefer to call the iPad Mini).

No–as it turns out each one of the panelists exhibited varying portable base stations used to boost wireless signals.

It’s no surprise that we’re aggravating ourselves toward a mentality of instant gratification and southern-style “demanding” of “satisfaction,” however, how many of us would go the extra step to further clutter our already massively cluttered landscape and rooftop scenes with more towers and machinery? All of us? That’s correct.

Wi-Fi and signal strength can be very unforgiving and frustrating for anyone who is used to enjoying rapid-paced internet and phone service in their equally rapid-paced Starbuck’s-fueled lives. One moment we’re enjoying the unprecedented speed of a mobile application for…well…let’s say…the iPod Touch, or any cell phone. The next minute you’re lost in an unrelenting sea of No Service. Sure, you could stand outside of a coffee shop, desperately pacing back and forth trying to pick up their signal, or you could introduce yourself to the Future.

Actually, we’re already there…and we might be able to un-clutter our landscapes and rooftops at the same time. Qualcomm’s senior vice president unveiled a portable femtocell base station that generates a signal over a 10 meter radius–and it’s about the size of a TV remote.

Imagine these bad boys simply planted around the city, or office, hidden in plants or trees, scattered about public parks, and now imagine them to have almost limitless signal strength and reach for miles and miles. OK, now you’re dreaming too big…for now.

The corporate head honchos expect to see a gigantic spike in cell phone use over the next five years. Alice White, a vice president at Bell Labs, expects that 40% of phones will be smart phones simultaneously running any number of apps, and if something is not done to prepare for that kind of usage, consumers will be tearing out their hair–so to speak.

The wheels are in motion to begin planting these portable cell phone towers in key areas. If no power source is nearby, the devices can be rigged to run on solar power. Mmm…green.

If all goes according to plan, we will inevitably see a huge increase in the ability to view, create, and share large multimedia files with ease and peace of mind. According to a CEO at Sprint, “Wireless has been the fastest adopted technology in history. There are more cell phones in use today than TVs, PCs and cars combined.”

Femtocells are designed to fill in “coverage holes” that often occur in homes and small businesses, Jonathan Segel, executive director of Alcatel-Lucent’s CTO Group, noted during his EmTech presentation Wednesday about mobile apps. In addition, he pointed out that cities have begun to turn to “metro cells” (which provide a range of several kilometers…okay now you can start dreaming big again) to offload data traffic in densely populated areas.

The trend over time is for mobile phone cells to continue to shrink while providing better service to wireless users. “Because your phone isn’t having to shout [to reach a cell tower], your battery life is better,” according to Rupert Baines, vice president of marketing for picoChip, a maker of chips used in femtocells. “If the signal doesn’t have to go too far you’ll get better quality, you’re covering less people with each base station and each person is getting more capacity.” PicoChip recently introduced a new processor designed to boost even small portable base station signals so they can be used in a variety of public spaces, including shopping malls and airports.

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