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As Wireless Industry Gets Bigger, Cells Get Smaller
From the very beginning of cellular technology deployments, the industry promised that subscriber growth would lead to smaller cells. In 2010, that prediction finally took hold with the growth of distributed antenna systems, femtocells and Wi-Fi systems. The popularity of picocells is also expected to increase in the coming year.

In October 2010, Informa Telecoms & Media reported that femtocells had reached a milestone, outnumbering conventional outdoor cell sites in the United States. The estimated number of femtocell access points is 350,000 compared with around 256,000 macrocells. Growth is expected to continue into the new year with half a million femtocells by March 2011.

"We are now starting to see practical evidence that femtocells are irrevocably changing the traditional macrocell culture of mobile networks. Whereas today's networks consist of a few thousand cells, in the future there will be millions - this will have a massive impact on mobile broadband capacity at a time when networks are under increasing strain," said Dimitris Mavrakis, senior analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media. "Over the past quarter, we've also seen more major operators roll out the technology and, perhaps more importantly, an evolution in the femtocell consumer proposition. Three months ago, only one operator was giving away free femtocells, now there are several showing that femtocells are becoming an important customer retention tool."

Faced with the crush of iPhone data, AT&T will expand its Wi-Fi deployment to include Rockefeller Center and St. Patrick's Cathedral and San Francisco's Embarcadero Center. Earlier this year, AT&T deployed Wi-Fi in New York City's Times Square, downtown Charlotte, N.C., and Chicago's Wrigleyville as part of its pilot project to explore using Wi-Fi to supplement mobile broadband in urban areas with consistently high mobile broadband use. In just a few months during the pilot, AT&T customers made more than 350,000 connections at the three Wi-Fi deployments. The carrier currently operates more than 23,000 Wi-Fi nodes nationwide.

This could be the year that DAS is seen as coming of age, according to Joe Madden, principal analyst at Mobile Experts, who predicts plentiful increases in DAS deployments. The count already exceeded 20,000 nodes early in 2010.

DAS also benefited from the rise of the smart phone and the ensuing increase in data. The cellular industry as a whole shifted from a coverage model to a capacity model, which meant that an urban area with macrocellular coverage might also be a candidate for DAS to beef up the bandwidth. Furthermore, DAS came to be viewed as an essential component of a greenfield cellular deployment. DAS nodes are now deployed in the hundreds and even thousands.