It's no secret that mobile technologies and devices are playing an increasingly critical role in today's workplace. In truth, many businesses have already gone completely wireless — replacing traditional landlines and desktop PCs with smartphones, laptops and tablets.
However, many users are finding a lack of ability to make even simple phone calls while in the workplace. Users are growing increasingly frustrated with their carrier as they are not able to get service everywhere — as much as 60 percent of subscribers have complained about poor mobile service at work by one report.
For those in human resources, sales or other jobs where being connected is critical, this is a real issue as for many a dropped call can mean a lost sale.
"It's extremely important," said Fernando Rosa, deputy director of HEDCO, Inc. in Hartford. "It is a nuisance; I keep talking not realizing nobody is listening."
Rosa says that he encounters Internet service disruptions on a regular basis in his office on Lewis Street, in an older building with a brick exterior.
Providing cost-effective coverage in buildings has always been difficult for mobile service providers as penetrating buildings successfully proves difficult with signal strength significantly degrading when traveling through walls and windows.
This problem is now being compounded by the fact that the wireless push has also placed strain on the airwaves that the data travels on — spectrum — which some say is now nearing capacity.
With mobile usage showing no signs of slowing — carriers will be expected to deliver 25 times more capacity within the next five years, according to one study — many feel this has the potential to become a major headache — for everyone.
Some in-building coverage solutions exist, perhaps most prominent being Distributed Antenna Systems. But, due to the large time and expense required, these have been targeted mostly at the largest corporations.
But, now there exists the real possibility that the answer to these really big problems might actually be very small — as in small cells.
Commonly known as femtocells, small cell technology involves the placement of tiny cell towers in homes or businesses. Femtocells allow carriers to improve cellular coverage and capacity where their customers use it the most, lowering turnover and improving their revenue opportunity.
Being so new to the market, enterprise small cell pricing varies, but many carriers offer the device for around $150 plus a monthly fee. Some may subsidize the cost more but have higher monthly fees and a longer contract.
Alacatel-Lucent, a major player in this market with more than 36 signed commercial deployment agreements with operators around the world and over 20 ongoing trials, boasts a 9360 Small Cell solution which enables easy "plug and play" capability. The user buys the device, plugs in power and an Ethernet connection to their DSL or cable modem, and allows about 15-30 minutes of time to configure. That's it; the femtocell is then ready to use.
So, what's in it for the end user?
"In short, better coverage and capacity," says Chris Kapuscinski, senior marketing manager in the Wireless Business Group at Alcatel-Lucent. "Traditional macro cellular signals may not penetrate to all areas within a building, especially in underground areas such as basements. Femtocells bring that cellular transmission closer to the user and subsequently increase the user's ability to use their mobile device throughout their home or office."
Kapuscinski said femtocells allow for seamless handover to the macro environment, meaning a person who starts a voice call at home can leave home, get in the car, and drive to work without losing their connection.
"In the future, as operators adopt more intelligent solutions, there will be greater opportunity to have seamless handover between WiFi access points and 3G and 4G licensed spectrum across macro, metro, and femtocell access points," Kapuscinski said. "The technology will be used to create heterogeneous networks — networks that employ multiple layers and multiple technologies,"
"Users will be able to start a voice call or a data session on one technology on one layer — WiFi at a Starbucks — and seamlessly transition to 3G or 4G licensed spectrum across a macro as they travel to work only to transition again to their enterprise's femto or WiFi. This will happen without the user even knowing."
Femtocells address spectrum concerns by, in essence, allowing the operator to reuse the spectrum by bringing it closer to the user. Through the use of femtocells, providers free up macro capacity to better serve those mobile users who are actually "mobile," versus in one location.
Many infrastructure providers have jumped into the game touting small cell solutions along with Alcatel, including Cisco, Powerwave, Ubee AirWalk and Taqua.
Sensing the opportunities, wireless providers are also investing.
Primarily aimed at smaller businesses and homes, AT&T's MicroCell serves as a mini cell tower connecting to an existing broadband Internet service. The cost of an AT&T Microcell is between $200 and $250.
"You receive improved cell signal performance for both voice calls and mobile data applications like picture messaging and Web surfing," said Steve Krom, vice president and general manager for AT&T New England. "This technology fills in signals that would otherwise be weaker indoors — due to location or construction challenges."
AT&T is aiming MicroCells primarily at rural communities, but they are available everywhere as part of the company's efforts to help bring wireless network coverage to more people.
Krom, noting AT&T's 8,000 percent increase in wireless data usage in the past three years, said that while it is impossible to tell where small cell technology is heading for certain, the fact is that customers are now using more than one mobile device — be it a tablet, a phone, a wirelessly enabled laptop or e-reader.
"It's part of our lives and we're constantly finding new ways to expand and enhance our network in areas where we have not be able to build yet or where there are construction challenges either from a geographical or in-building perspective," Krom said.
Alcatel's Kapascinski believes that not only will the home and enterprise femtocell market continue to grow, but that the technology will migrate to the metro environment.
Using the example of a crowded stadium where large numbers of people gather and overwhelm a macro site, often resulting in dropped calls and sluggish Internet browser performance, Kapascinski said a metro cell builds on the concept of small cells — access points that are placed closer to where the users are versus large macro sites whose primary purpose is coverage across a great distance.
"Metro cells are intended to not only provide greater coverage to rural environments, but also greater capacity in urban environments where high numbers of users can quickly overwhelm the capacity of a nearby macro," Kapascinski said.
"Metro cells provide a lower cost means of delivering the capacity users want without the need for large, costly, and unsightly macro installation. Alcatel believes that small cells, specifically metro cells, will be the workhorse of network capacity."