Femtocells and Mobile Data

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Last time, we looked into the big numbers that characterize the stuff moving over the Internet - Exabytes, Zettabytes, Yottabytes.

This week, we’ll look at another set of numbers, used to define things very small. These are numbers to the left of zero - nano, pico, femto. (And, after that, atto, zepto, yocto.)

Why care? In data networking, it’s a symbiotic thing - the larger the volume of data, the greater the need to break the network into smaller and smaller coverage areas, to handle the load.

Why care now? Hello, iPhone 4, with the camera on the front for wireless video calls. Hello, iPad, with your video splendor! The glut of chatty, bandwidth-assuming gadgets at the ends of (AT&T’s) mobile network means challenges in keeping all the bits flowing in the right direction, at the right time. It’s not for the faint of plant.

Here’s how Apple CEO Steve Jobs put it, at the “D8″ conference hosted by The Wall Street Journal earlier this month: “I’m convinced that any other network, if you put this many iPhones on it, would’ve had the same problems.”

That was a week before the launch of the iPhone 4.

It brings to mind the early “video phones.” Remember? In the 1980s, you could go to an AT&T store to try it. This was way before broadband as we know it. Engineers at the time always recommended a feigned sneeze, to test the capabilities of the connection. Sneezes aren’t an issue now (pollen notwithstanding).

Traffic congestion is why AT&T in March launched a “femtocell” product - a $150 box for the home or building, marketed as a “mini cellular tower in your home.” In this case, the “femto” in “femtocell” is more marketing than actual numbers.

In marketing-speak, the “femtocell” is next in the progression after the pico cell. Either way, it’s an indoor access point to make sure you still have five bars of signal in your building, even if you’re deep within it. In short, the femtocell is more of a personal cell, while picocells are for an area.

Femtocells are relatively new, mostly because it’s taken time to cost-reduce them into an affordable state.

For the people who watch over mobile broadband bandwidth, femtocells are a part of what one wireless pal calls “the densification” of the plant - adding more access points, buttressed with DOCSIS-based backhaul.

The cable angle is in the backhaul. It’s about femtocell (or picocell) access points, hooked to DOCSIS modems, to offload the traffic. That Wi-Fi federation of cable companies on the East Coast, hooked up together so that people can get a good strong broadband signal, wherever they are? That’s DOCSIS-based backhaul.