Coming Soon: A 3G Wireless Station in Every Room?

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AT&T rolls out 3G MicroCell, Wireless in every roomI wrote previously about the South-by-Southwest Festival (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, and how it seemed like a national coming-out party for location-based social networks like FourSquare and GoWalla. To make sure all those check-in happy hipsters could get five bars on their mobile devices, AT&T (T) hauled in a boatload of gear, freed up additional spectrum and used other technology tricks to provide a bodacious wireless data network that had even AT&T uber-hater M.G. Siegler, a TechCrunch columnist, cheering.

Ironically, this display by AT&T was probably the last time a major cell company will have to go to such expensive lengths to provide sufficient data coverage. That's because SXSW 2010 also marks the time wireless data came down off the cell tower and into your living room or office.At the CTIA wireless industry confab last week, AT&T announced a nationwide rollout of its 3G MicroCell. For a $150 one-time cost, AT&T sells the equivalent of a small 3G wireless station to place in your home. Users can connect the MicroCell to their home broadband connection.

This is a brilliant move by AT&T. It pacifies angry customers who get spotty or poor reception in their homes. Moreover, this speeds up the replacement of landlines with cell phones, a switch that will continue to benefit AT&T.

The MicroCell also takes the network burden off AT&T's towers and puts it on either DSL or cable networks (or in some instances, Verizon's FiOS fiber network). This means AT&T will likely reduce its torrid pace of capital expenditures. And it's also a revenue boon for the company. Those who want unlimited calls from their MicroCell (meaning, their plan doesn't provide for it) can pony up $20 per month. That's $20 that used to go to Comcast or on top of an AT&T U-verse subscription.

Targeted Cellular Boost

So what does this have to do with SXSW? Some of the same technologies as the MicroCell are on the verge of being rolled out for businesses. Rather than having to sling boxes on towers and reserve spectrum, AT&T may soon be able to simply plug a bunch of MicroCells into the fiber-optic network already running through the Austin Convention Center. This will saturate the technorati with cellular coverage at a fraction of the cost.

The same thing can be done in your office. That's the plan of SpiderCloud Wireless, a Bay Area startup comprised of most of the executive team of Flarion, the wireless data network company bought by mobile technologies giant Qualcomm (QCOM) in 2005.

SpiderCloud's proposition is simple. A company agrees to sign up for a large number of cell-phone accounts through AT&T, Verizon (VZ) or some other major carrier. The carrier buys special wireless data network units from SpiderCloud to install on the premises. That special network will be managed by the carrier for an additional fee and will also serve as a high-speed wireless network.

Employees will be able to get crystal clear phone reception in the office using the SpiderCloud network. Outside the office, their mobile devices will revert to the standard cell-phone network. SpiderCloud is already testing in Europe and is expecting to roll out with some real customers in the U.S. later this year or early 2011.

Plug and Play

It's a very neat concept because it provides extremely granular control. Explains SpiderCloud Marketing VP Ronny Haraldsvik: "We can let a building owner provide a wireless network that works only for a floor, for part of a floor, for multiple floors, or for several locations around the building. You don't have to run wireless through the whole building."

SpiderCloud believes that wireless data networks will end up becoming yet another managed service, something that larger wireless data network equipment providers such as Cisco (CSCO) agree with and will build software for into their control systems. But SpiderCloud is the system to date that comes closest to solving the enterprise problem of bad indoor cell-phone reception and wireless network management in one fell swoop. (After all, how many sales guys do you know rely primarily on their cell phones to receive calls?).

For venues like the Austin Convention Center, a SpiderCloud network could be set up before a big event, plugged into the building's existing fiber-optic connection and provide an instant 3G blanket with better coverage than anywhere else in the city. AT&T could manage the roll out without ever showing up to install the boxes. "You can literally plug them into an Ethernet cable and that's all you have to do," says Haraldsvik.

At present, such technologies probably hold the greatest near-term promise for alleviating cellular congestion headaches. That could benefit not only AT&T and other wireless service providers but also entities such as convention centers, commercial buildings, malls, and other places where cellular signal strength was previously a problem.
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