The small cell's role could grow even larger if technology disclosed this week by Intel and infrastructure maker Ubiquisys makes it into carrier networks. On Wednesday, Ubiquisys announced add-on computing and caching modules developed with Intel for its hybrid cellular and Wi-Fi access points.
The modules, based on Intel Core and Atom processors, are designed to perform application processing themselves in order to reduce backhaul traffic and boost performance for subscribers. They are expected to have SSDs (solid-state disks) of 40GB to 80GB. Though there can be ample computing power available from the core of a mobile operator's network, it may make more sense to carry out some functions at the edge of the network, said Keith Day, vice president of marketing at Ubiquisys.
For example, small cells with the add-on modules could cache frequently requested data, perform virus checking or deep packet analysis or do video encoding and decoding, he said. Doing any of these in the core means more data traversing the network.
"The cloud is a long way from mobile users, and that extra time it takes to go back and forth means, ultimately, battery time," Day said.
Intel commissioned Ubiquisys to develop the modules, which will be demonstrated at Mobile World Congress and available in the second quarter, Day said.
Also on Wednesday, two mobile infrastructure organizations moved to help developers write software that uses small cells' special capabilities. The Small Cell Forum (SCF) and Open Mobile Alliance (OMA) announced an agreement under which the OMA will develop API (application programming interface) standards for applications that take advantage of small cells. Vendors in the SCF, which was known until this week as the Femtocell Forum, will be able to make sure that APIs are compatible with their products, the groups said.
Because they cover a smaller area than traditional macro cells, small cells can deliver more useful information about the location and availability of mobile device users, Gartner analyst Akshay Sharma said.
In a real-world example, Japan's NTT DoCoMo offers an application that uses a home femtocell to detect whether a child is home based on the presence of that child's phone within range of the femtocell. Small cells could also be used along with data mining to divine some characteristics of the people in a given area, such as income or shopping history, Sharma said. As long as this was done with the proper permissions and safeguards, it might be used to determine what kinds of ads should be displayed on a screen, he said.
Mobile World Congress runs Feb. 27 through March 1 in Barcelona.
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