‘Small cell’ base stations could be a mobile phone “game changer”

We’ve all been there. Driving along, plugged into your hands free and suddenly, without warning, you lose the call.

It’s an annoying, and sadly commonplace experience for mobile phone users, particularly in Scotland where coverage among pretty much all operators is poor.

But a new technology, which is starting to be taken up in the US, has the potential to dramatically enhance mobile phone coverage without hoisting up great big, expensive masts all over the place.

So-called ‘small cell’ base stations could be deployed inside lampposts or in office buildings to boost signals in a very localised way to ensure you avoid the dreaded mobile phone ‘blackspot’.

Tommy Cook, CEO of Calnex Solutions, a Linlithgow-based company which designs the equipment to test mobile phone masts, explains: “The technology has the potential to be a real game-changer, in terms of the number of users and the bandwith you can deliver. It would allow operators to balance the load in a much smarter way.

“If you have lots of small cells in lots of places – inside lampposts or on every floor of an office building – the mobile phone would suddenly be connected everywhere.”

Cook said the technology was the single most impressive feature – industry development wise – that he witnessed at the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

He said the event – attended by Scottish Development International – was a great opportunity to meet potential partners in a fast-developing, global mobile phone industry.

He said: “Every year we’ve sent more and more people. There are a lot of sales people there, and that’s not always who you want to meet – we’re more interested in meeting the engineers. And our big focus is to meet people who we can partner with.

“You have to go global in this market – we work with the likes of Cisco and Huawei – and so it’s great that SDI take a stand there; it’s a really good use of public money.”

Cook says the mobile coverage in Scotland is “poor” and needs a lot of infrastructure investment. He said it is common to find vastly superior mobile phone networks in less developed countries, but adds: “Historically, we have had a well connected landline infrastructure and haven’t needed to invest so rapidly but we are starting to realise the benefits now. However, infrastructure is expensive to deliver.”

But he says he agrees with the UK Government’s desire to see mobile phone operators share their networks to improve coverage.

He said: “Mobile communications are moving at an incredibly fast pace now. Whereas we have server farms operating with a 100gigabit interface, these will probably soon move to 400gigabit. We’re moving in a four to five year cycle where people are using more and more data, and more and more bandwidth.”

Calnex Solutions

  • Founded in 2006
  • Provides test & measurement solutions to the mobile communications industry
  • Worldwide market – 1/3 in Europe, Middle East and Africa, 1/3 in Asia and 1/3 in North America
  • 67 employees