Wireless Systems Design

Will Google And Femtos Reshape The Wireless Industry?

There are a couple of subjects I never got around to this year in WSD, specifically the Google cell phone possibilities and femto cell’s potential. None of this exists at the moment except for some trials here and there, but you will be hearing more about them in the coming year. Here is a look at what to expect.

Femto Cells

The word, or actually, the prefix femto means: 10-15. That is one thousandth of a trillionth, or something really, really small. So, as you might deduce, a femto cell is a small cellular basestation. Think of a basestation about the size of the common Wi-Fi router/gateway used in homes and other access points and you’ll catch my drift. We normally assume that basestations are the typical big cell site with tall tower, lots or antennas and an equipment house nearby. There are tens of thousands of these around and they are very visible. But what you do not often see are the smaller basestations called micro or pico cells that are placed on top of buildings or inside buildings in high density population areas where cell coverage is commonly poor or even unavailable. These pico or micro cells have a short range, but fill in the coverage gaps caused by indoor environmental blockage or fading service and dropped calls in the urban canyons. Now we are on the verge of getting an even smaller basestation called the femto cell. It is targeting the home. Yes, a home basestation.

You will be able to buy a home femto cell in the coming years. It will give you coverage for your cell phone at home and a short distance surrounding your home. The femto cell will use your existing high-speed Internet connection via cable TV, DSL or fiber optics as back-haul to the carrier.

The questions you have to ask about femto cells starts with why? Is there a growing need or demand for these technical wonders? Just what is the justification? There always seems to be a small percentage of cell phone users who get lousy coverage at their homes. They may live in a rural area or a big apartment or condo building or have other environmental issues that make transmission and reception the pits. These folks would surely go for a femto cell. This just could lead to you eventually giving up your home landline phone (if you don't have DSL). The telcos wouldn't like that but fixed, wired telephone lines and subscriptions have been slowly declining for years. Yet, those telcos also have wireless businesses that could benefit.

Actually a similar solution is available to you now if you have a WLAN in your home. Your router or gateway lets you connect multiple PCs to your high-speed Internet line wirelessly. How many of you have gotten addicted to using your notebook PC anywhere in the house? I certainly have. What a convenience. But did you know you can make phone calls via your Wi-Fi LAN? If you have a dual-mode cell phone that adds a Wi-Fi transceiver to your regular cell phone, your cell phone can link-up with your wireless network and make phone calls via voice over WLAN or VoWLAN or VoWi-Fi. Using a new system called Universal Mobile Access (UMA) your dual-mode phone switches seamlessly between cellular coverage and WLAN coverage—depending upon which service has the best reception and coverage. There are over 140 dual-mode phones now on the market.

Moving on, the technology is around and a few femto cell products do exist (e.g. Samsung) and field trials are underway in more than a few places. What we are waiting for is one or more business models that will let the telcos and wireless carriers make some money. That, and a few really useful applications. But then again, maybe you should wait for WiMAX that will do essentially the same thing?

Google Phones

You may have already heard that Google is interested in getting into the cell phone business. On the surface it doesn't seem to make sense why the world’s largest search service would get into that business. But, think twice and you say, “Oh, now I get it.” It's all about the ads. We all think Google is a search company first but it is not. It’s a business. Google, behind the bells and whistles, is really a large advertising vehicle. And since cell phones can now handle search and will be doing more search in the future, Google sees the cell phone as a way to greatly extend its advertising revenue. Is this a good idea or not? For them it is probably a great plan. With over one billion cell phones sold annually, that is a huge target for ads. But for us consumers, it may be just one more annoying distraction. The cell phone is just about the only place we don't get ads. That's a good thing as far as I am concerned. I get enough ads on TV, radio, and the Internet. I could really do without them on my cell phone. Yet, there is the great possibility that this will happen in the near future. Doesn’t it seem inevitable? Obviously the consumer has no say in this.

Google has already approached the cellular carriers about search and ads. If the carriers could share in the ad revenue, they may do it. But Google is not taking any chances on that. They seem to be prepared to build out a cellular network themselves if there are no takers amongst the incumbents. For example, Google has indicated that it would probably bid on a piece of that choice spectrum in the 700 MHz range that the FCC will begin auctioning off in late January. The opening bid has to be at least $4.6 billion—a bit of a stretch for most companies, but for Google it’s more like piggy-bank bucks. The big issue is if Google does indeed win that spectrum, it will take much more than the $4.6 billion (or whatever inflated fee they pay) to build the infrastructure of an entirely new national cellular network. I'm not saying that it is a bad idea, it is just a real tough road to go down. More likely, Google will go to an existing carrier and buy the service. Google has been in talks with Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile, and a few others about creating a partnership to use the spectrum and to include the Google search capability and the ads on an existing network.

One big stipulation the FCC is mandating for the owner of the to-be auctioned spectrum is that the carrier has to create an open system. An open system is basically one in which a subscriber could use any available phone, and add other features and software that may not be available from the carrier. Users can really customize their phones to exactly what they are doing, just like how we are free to configure our PCs and laptops exactly the way we want them. In today's closed systems, the carriers set the agenda by offering only specific phones with specific features and capabilities that they support. You are locked in or limited. An open system would give the power back to the people.

Another element of the Google movement is that they have recently announced the availability of their new open operating system called Android. In addition, Google is offering a development system that will let anyone create new applications for their OS that will run on a multimedia smart phone. Google has also formed the Open Handset Alliance (OHA), a group of 33 telcos, semiconductor companies, and others interested in supporting this new OS. A free software-development kit just became available. It does not seem likely we will see an actual Google phone or GPhone but it is generally known that Google has had several models built and tested by LG and HTC. The likelihood of seeing some Linux based Android phones is pretty good.

I don't know about you, but I just don't hear much of an outcry for an open system. Are people really disappointed in their choice of phones and services? I don't think so. You do hear some discontent clamor by some users about service, but rarely because the system is closed? My Apple iPhone with AT&T is the ultimate closed system. But it is perfectly fine as it supports so many applications and features. Like almost everything else, we may get open systems anyway, as we are on that path. And Verizon just recently announced their intent to be an open provider some time mid next year. Then you can buy a cell phone directly from Nokia, Motorola, or whomever and not have to take what Verizon offers. But since Verizon typically subsidizes the phones they sell, buying a phone from an outside source will obviously cost you more. Verizon plans to test phones and software add-ons to be sure they meet minimal technical standards. In any case, the open phone arrangement is a clear trend that may bring the US into line with the rest of the world that is already open.

Keep an eye open. See how the spectrum auction goes, as that will shape the cell-phone sector for years to come. And it may end the bliss of our only ad-free electronic device.

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