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Hanging on the telephone: Why booming demand for smartphones is creating bottlenecks

Growth in demand for smartphones is having a big effect on the mobile and wired networks, so much so that worries are being aired about the ability to support the projected number of users. The problem is the mobile phone network was designed to carry voice traffic; even text messages were not considered in the early days.

Today, the mobile phone network carries more than 6billion text messages every day and more than 200million phones calls are in progress at any time. Accessing the web via a smartphone needs bandwidth and not enough of that is available via the traditional macro basestation. Building more macro basestations is generally not an option – particularly in cities – so smaller cells need to be created; step forward things like the femtocell.

Even if you can get mobile service via a femtocell, the data still has to be 'backhauled' and calls are being made for the UK to invest in the fibre optic backbone. It's no surprise, then, to find technology companies scrambling to develop solutions ahead of the crunch. Last week's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona saw the usual tidal wave of new phones and the like, but some headlines were stolen by the hardware that will enable tomorrow's mobile phone system.

Companies like Qualcomm were discussing quad core chips which increase data capacity substantially, while Freescale launched the Qonverge family, designed to increase capacity at all points in the basestation hierarchy. Meanwhile, Alcatel Lucent unveiled lightRadio, a concept in which the components of a macro basestation are distributed throughout the cell, with data backhauled via microwave links.

Will we see macro basestations disappear in the near future? Probably not, but the way in which our mobile phones access the networks hidden 'behind the scenes' will change dramatically in the coming years.

Graham Pitcher

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