back to article Femtocells, not 4G, will solve spectrum crisis

4G will improve capacity by only 1.2 times, according to the latest research, so better network topologies will be needed if we're going to get the bandwidth it seems we'll need. Solving the widely anticipated data crunch will require better-designed networks, rather than new generations of radio standard, according to the …


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  1. Anton Ivanov
    Thumb Down

    So why exactly should an LTE phone bother?

    LTE is mobile IP. Any LTE phone can happily access its services via any access network including the user WiFi and Broadband and most of them will have a WiFi MAC and a radio.

    I really do not see why would anyone need a femtocell which goes across the _SAME_ broadband with the _SAME_ lack of QoS instead of using the native functionality already present in the phone.

    1. Graham Wilson

      @Anton Ivanov -- The real issue is limited spectrum (and spectrum management).

      Once upon a time when the ITU was an orderly place--a time before many countries caught the disease of downsizing, outsourcing and or amalgamating their spectrum management authorities along with their spectrum management engineers--and a time when radio and electromagnetic propagation characteristics were actually taught as core subjects to all electrical/electronic engineers--there would have been no debate like this one, as the cognoscenti would have implicitly understood that the laws of physics impose strict rules and limitations on the mount of available bandwidth in every form of radio propagation. Again, one has to remind protagonists that the term 'bandwidth' was actually coined by radio engineers and not those in computer science.

      Yes, there would have been a general widespread debate amongst engineers about the best methods of delivering the required channel bandwidth to a specific service area. It would have involved such topics as how to optimise/maximize channel availability but minimize interference between all users of a limited radio spectrum. Adopting such methods as effective protection ratios (correct distance, power etc.) between separated users [read 'cells'] using the same channels/frequencies. Also, there'd have been a rational logical debate about which services [users] should be allocated wireless (along with channels, modulation types etc.) versus services that should only be transmitted by fibre.

      And if there'd been a non-lunatic green movement back then, it'd have concerned itself with seeing that fair access to the radio spectrum was had by all users whilst still being very cognizant of the fact that every additional user who uses radio spectrum generates a small but significant non-linear (inseparable) radio noise which, collectively, is polluting the electromagnetic spectrum across the whole planet. Effectively, the once-quiet radio spectrum's noise floor is being continually raised to the point where some important essential services and military circuits are beginning to notice a degradation in the quality and performance of their communications. Even passive [non-transmitting/radiating] radio astronomers are suffering significant intermodulated noise interference from millions of radio users.

      Ah but alas, much electrical engineering and all digital and computer engineering and programming courses don't teach a damn iota about this stuff or the need for proper control (prudent regulation) over the radio spectrum. Right, the very users--especially those who are demanding access to more spectrum--aren't taught a damn thing about its management. The consequences are that we've a trite and ill-informed debate about the critical radio spectrum infrastructure and that even includes many poorly-advised government policy makers.

      Also, the fact that only limited improvements in bandwidth utilisation can be obtained from using G4 (as per this El Reg article) hasn’t come from a plethora of other sources and that it's late in the day, only backs up my assertion there's a wide lack of knowledge about spectrum management, both generally and in IT; and that now there are too few experts working in the area as consequence of reckless government policies.

      It's a debate where the blind leads the ignorant and vice versa. Even the IEEE--whose long history put it into the thick of the spectrum debates of the first half of the 20th Century--has gone to ground and is showing little leadership in the wireless internet debate.

      How debased and messy this debate has become can be seen by the IEEE's failure to criticise the totally unacceptable technology of Broadband over Powerlines, BPL, (PLC, Powerline Communications). It's a technology that attempts to transmit the internet over the world's power grid without acknowledging the fact that the millions of miles of power cables also act as good antennae; thus, if BPL were to be widely deployed, then it would be the largest polluting source of the radio spectrum ever devised. The IEEE even published an article on BPL in its Spectrum Magazine expounding the virtues of this nasty technology (even the word 'technology' is seemingly so inappropriate here).

      And where were the Greenies when really needed. Can't see 'em for dust. Right, this bunch of useless 'spiritualist' would rather hug whales or trees than be involved in something that's both important and requires some actual technical nous.

      The fact is that the radio spectrum is a fixed given, it's not infinitely extensible and only comparatively small parts of it have properties that are suitable for the general transmitting of internet data, and we're fast filling those up. Advocates of wireless internet technology are correct when they say we can squeeze more channels out of the spectrum by using better techniques such as improved modulation but the law of diminishing returns is beginning to set in--illustrated by the need for 'femto' cells etc. There's no doubt that such developments will have to go hand in hand with the widespread deployment of very fast fibre.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Quick question, loosely related to Anton's

    Whether the answer is femtosells, or WiFi, or whatever... the data needs to get from the basestation to the backbone (regardless of whether the basestation is operated by a telco or a punter or whatever).

    What mechanism is that going to use, and which option (femto, LTE, etc) is going to offer better service in today's notspots? Obviously the practical range of WiFi is very limited... does any of this matter?

  3. Fuzz

    More base stations should be better all round

    More base stations should be better for the not in my back yard crowd. More base stations closer together means less power used in transmission so lowering any perceivable risk.

    1. SImon Hobson Bronze badge

      You expect that to matter ?

      >> More base stations closer together means less power used in transmission so lowering any perceivable risk.

      But the NIMBY types don't care about whether there is actually any risk, the fact that there are more of them will (in many minds) automatically mean that the risk is multiplied up many times over. Any suggestions that the lower power means lower risk will simply be shrugged off as attempts to hide the truth behind technobabble.

    2. SuccessCase

      More base stations

      Means less honey bees.

      It may sound trivial to many people and I've never been an eco-activist or publicly posted anything eco related before in my life. But the link between wireless base stations and honey bee loss is now proven and is apparently currently devastating the bee population. We really need to understand it more before increasing the density of cells. The Reg's back of an envelope figures imply a 50 fold or more increase in mast density. If bee populations have already dropped alarmingly, (which they have) what will a 50 fold increase in cell density do? Much more study is required and urgently (there are other factors which may be more or less responsible than wireless signal - the point is we know the bee population has dropped alarmingly and we know wireless either shares or is wholly responsible for the decline) It's not just eco clap trap either. Bees really are understood to be vital for pollination to take place and so are vital for flora around us, everywhere. Maybe it's possible to implement wireless in a way which doesn't affect honey bees. No one currently knows what it is in mobile phone signals in particular, that so disturbs them.

      1. nyelvmark


        >>But the link between wireless base stations and honey bee loss is now proven and is apparently currently devastating the bee population.

        Uhh - is it "proven", or is it "apparently"? Pics or it didn't happen.

    3. Graham Wilson

      @Fuzz -- Nice in theory but...

      ..that assumes you've logical linear thinkers who are analyzing the problem.

      This is the same mob who, when trains first started taking passengers in the early 1800s, thought that traveling at speeds more an 20-30MPH would kill them.

      Once the powers that be could override such nonsensical thinking, now unfortunately they can't (like it or not, that's democracy at work).

  4. simon_saunders

    Kind of...


    Thanks for the article on our report. But to clarify, the report really says that *all* of the tools for increasing capacity are likely to be needed: more spectrum AND 4G technology AND small cells. And with LTE in the mix of technologies, the UK could see 5.5x spectrum efficiency over the next ten years.


  5. Ian K

    "4G will improve capacity by only 1.2 times" that a 20% increase on current capacity (a factor of 1.2) or 120% (an addition of 1.2)?

    1. nyelvmark


      equals "multiplied by" - or at least it did when I was in primary school.

      Think more carefully before you use the Pedantry icon in future, please. You are not welcome in our club at the moment.

      1. Anonymous Coward


        The question is valid.

        An improvement of Y on a base of X gives X + Y.

        An improvement of 1.2 times a base of X on a base of X gives X + 1.2X, i.e. 120% improvement.

        It's the same misuse of language as the alarmingly common "2 times better" which actually means 3 times as good rather than the twice as good which is intended.

      2. Anonymous Coward

        Increase By

        If I increase something by one times, I've doubled it. If I increase something by zero times, I've not increased it at all: It is the same amount.

        If I multiply something by one times, I've not increased it at all.

        There is a problem with "increased by N times":

        - "Increased by 0.2", or

        - "1.2 times" would be clear.

        So, please don't be so condescending.

  6. Keith Day
    Thumb Up

    Small cells will combine with public WiFi hotspots

    A new type of small cell hotspot that combines 3G(HSPA)/LTE/WiFi is emerging. Because they run femtocell-derived software they can use abundant fixed broadband resources for backhaul. Ref yesterday's announcement from Ubiquisys and Texas Instruments (

  7. Andrew Jones 2


    OK, I admit I haven't read the PDF - because you said it was surprisingly dull - but I have read the article.

    Despite the headline being about Femtocells solving spectrum issues - I do not see anything in the article remotely related to the headline???

    The article basically says that the mobile operators need to build more base stations and have them closer together. There is no mention about individual users plugging a bit of hardware into their broadband line allowing them to broadcast their own local signal for the phone to connect to?

    In short I am confused as to how the article relates to the headline?

    1. jonathanb Silver badge

      Re: um.....

      You would have femtocells in places like railway stations and shopping centres where there are a lot of people making phone calls in a small area, just like at the moment you have wifi to take some of the load off the data network.

    2. nyelvmark


      OMG, you must be one of those neanderthals whose mobile devices are still micro-something. That's SO last season. I bet your tablet doesn't have a name starting with "i", right?

  8. Anonymous Coward

    To paraphrase...

    ..crisis? What crisis?

  9. Bob H
    Paris Hilton

    Korean example

    Having visited South Korea a few times I have come to the realisation that it isn't 4G that the UK really needs, it is a better 3G network. There were femotcells everywhere to re-enforce the network, particularly in shopping centres and around restaurants/bars. This meant that when I wanted to look something up on my smart phone it was dramatically faster than under the same conditions in urban UK. I concede that coverage in rural areas could also be improved but in reality just improving 3G coverage in those areas would cost much less than a 4G roll out and those areas would be grateful. In many parts of the developing world mobile internet is preferred because wired infrastructure is expensive to deploy and expensive for the consumer.

    If a rural community wants high speed broadband why not have them get a microcell installed on the local church or community centre. They could then all take advantage of 4-10Mbit/sec mobile broadband.

    All of this depends on the mobile operators being interested in femtocells. Orange seem to not care about them, only Vodaphone has yet deployed them and I haven't heard good things about that. I would also like to see public wifi 802.11n roaming become easier for consumers. In theory this can happen with WISPR but if more companies provided roaming enabled wireless we would all be better off.

    Paris, because she gets around with a fat pipe.

  10. Arnold Lieberman

    More importantly

    Does LTE improve on 3G power consumption? Current 3G tech puts a heavier load on the hardware to keep channels open. Ideally, we need a system that can go to sleep/detach form the network when not being used. Only then will we see smartphones last more than a day whilst connected.

  11. Trevor 7

    And ultimately the higher bandwidth solution will be...

    They will put a wired connections in each location so you can connect directly to the network for the highest possible speeds!

    1. AndrueC Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      It's funny..

      ..because it's true :)

      One other thing that's funny:If an area is dependant on xG because the broadband is crap - how do you get data from the femtocell back to civilisation?

      Half a dozen femtocells is not going to help much if they all have 0.5Mb/s connections back to the nearest exchange.

      1. Anonymous Coward

        But if I bundle together thirty or so 0.5Mb/s femtocells

        that would give me a better connection than my Broadband!

        [cue drums]

        1. JohnG

          But if I bundle together thirty or so 0.5Mb/s femtocells

          "...that would give me a better connection than my Broadband!"

          Not if all 30 femtocells are using the same 0.5Mb/s broadband. Even if the 30 are connected to different broadband connections which are themselves sharing the same low bandwidth connectivity to the rest of the wold, they are still useless. Femtocells are only of use where there is Internet connectivity available at sufficient bandwidth (and latency).

  12. Bucky 2


    Do they shoot bullets out of their jumblies?

  13. Terry Cloth

    The femtocells are out to get you

    It's all a CIA plot. The closer the cells are together, the more accurately your position can be determined without any action on your part. The only recourse is to turn off your phone, which kind of obviates its purpose, no?

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    rural ... high speed broadband

    "If a rural community wants high speed broadband why not have them get a microcell installed on the local church or community centre. They could then all take advantage of 4-10Mbit/sec mobile broadband."

    Er, Bob, care to explain how the data then affordably gets back from the church to the Internerd (and vice versa)? It probably doesn't, in the absence of "affordable high speed rural broadband". Chicken, meet egg. But if there was already affordable high speed rural broadband, the church wouldn't need the aerial.

    Anyway, UK plc already has a national licenced supplier for fixed wireless broadband, why do we need another one (apart from the fact that Ofcon have let Netvigator (etc) sit on their licence and completely fail to deliver anything meaningful).

    1. Charles 9


      Getting broadband out to a rural community is economically difficult, but combining both approaches could allow a community to wire up.

      The hardest part of any rural rollout is adding the initial infrastructure. That's why rural broadband is so hard: the infrastructure simply isn't there. For each premises that must be added to the infrastructure, more time and money must be invested: increasing the rollout cost.

      OTOH, if the infrastructure only has to go to one location (say a communal building in/near the center of the community), with the last mile done wirelessly, then there's a potential to reduce the costs. Then, if everyone in the community pitches in, they could obtain a broadband solution. And since the small the community, the smaller the network strain, bandwidth requirements don't necessarily have to be that great.

      1. AndrueC Silver badge
        Thumb Up


        ..but it depends where the costings actually fall. I think that the greatest cost is the local backhaul. Once that's in place a metal box with some VDSL kit is probably quite cheap. Unfortunately at the risk of stirring up that old hornet's nest 'cheap' is only part of the problem. The other part is having enough punters to pay it back.

        £1m to upgrade a large town is expensive but if there's 10k potential premises it's only £100 per home. Even with a 1 in 10 take up it's only £1,000 a home to recoup.

        £25k for a village is a lot cheaper. But if it only has 100 premises then it's £250 per home and with 1 in 10 take up that becomes £2500 per home.

        Now the above figures are total guesses on my part but /that/ folks is why the final third exists. A small town lies in between the two. Oh and you can probably replace 'village' with 'small sub-exchange within a large city'.

        Now you can help the final third by taking a longer term view. Amortise the village over 10 years instead of the same three as you use for large towns. But that then means they risk losing out on The Next Big Thing(TM). That's why M1 exchanges probably exist. Starting from scratch it may make sense to give them FTTC or even FTTP. But if they may still be paying off the investment made to get them ADSL. Until that is repaid BT won't want to invest any more money.

        Whatever the exact reasoning one things is pretty certain. M1 exchanges are not that way because BT hate the residents. There's no sense getting worked up and annoyed about it. M1 exchanges exist because BT can't currently make a profit from them. That's not BT's fault. That's just business principals. Until/unless someone figures out how to make a socialist paradise work we're stuck with letting RoI do the talking.

    2. AndrueC Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Chicken and egg indeed.

      In order to service the microcell they install a leased line to the church and of course it'll be fibre because that's the obvious choice these days. Having done that they decide it would be stupid not to terminate it with a decent head-end. Whether it's a proper fibre aggregation point or just VDSL2+ kit in a box is fairly irrelevant.

      Either of those make the microcell redundant. Hence no need for the leased line.

      I think basically what we're seeing is a fundamental truth. Bandwidth costs money however you provide it. Unfortunately Ofcom has spent the last decade-and-a-bit convincing the public that it doesn't.

      1. M Gale

        Bandwidth costs nothing.

        Digging up roads and paying people to dig up roads costs money. Paying an army of BOFHs to sit in notwork centres and pretend to maintain them costs money. 1s and 0s cost approximately fuck-all, even including the negligable cost of the electricity to send them.

        It's one reason I have to look at schemes (scams?) that charge you per-megabyte and think "what.. the.. fuck?"

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    ""if the infrastructure only has to go to one location"

    "if the infrastructure only has to go to one location then there's a potential to reduce the costs."

    That reduces infrastructure costs. It makes no difference to bandwidth costs, and those are the killer.

    1. Charles 9

      Not really.

      Electrically speaking, bandwidth doesn't cost that much until you get into the Terabits/sec range. The big problem for rural broadband is the cost of infrastructure...because you have to build from scratch and end up tearing into existing infrastructure. Add the distance you need to travel to get to that community, and it adds up fast.

  16. WTFF
    Paris Hilton


    Can anyone please explain how signal from base station 10 miles away is "sent into an area 50 square miles in size" and how if base station is only 1 mile away "figures drop to a shade over a tenth of a square mile for the base station, and .8 from the handset"

    Paris - coz I might not actually know just how stupid I am...

    1. AndrueC Silver badge

      Good point.

      It'd have to be a pretty naff mast I think. If a signal can reach 10 miles and if it broadcasts in all directions then surely it covers 314 square miles?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward


        Cell site antenna don't broadcast over a full 360 degrees. Each set of paddles covers 60 degrees (a sector).

        314 mi^2 / 6 is roughly 50 mi^2 per sector.

  17. TheMD

    how come 23 comments got posted before someone remembered

    ...that r = 10, pi*r^2 != 50

  18. Graham Wilson
    Thumb Up

    Correct (it's a no brainer)

    And with high speed fibre to connect to the 'femtos' (and to easily-installed fixed installations) to ensure that true 21st Century-appropriate bandwidths can be had by all.

    Of course it's a no-brainer.

  19. David 66

    RIP Bees

  20. gon

    phone range 314 square miles..?? yeah right

    " while the one coming from my phone fills a circle of 314 square miles."

    bet your phone battery does not last very long then... ... my calculations put you at just under 13000 feet up to achieve that range.... i think someone needs to take a few math lessons before writing this rubbish

  21. WelshBluebird

    Frequencies are what is important.

    I think the real point of 4G will not be the extra speed or efficiency, but simply the fact it will mean all mobile networks should have a slice of the lower frequency spectrum, which should mean that coverage is vastly improved (this will especialy be the case for Everything everywhere and three, who currently have to deal with much higher frequencies than O2 and vodaphone).

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