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Femto for President

Michael Harris
Michael Harris

10:20 AM -- The over-the-top mudslinging that has become the hallmark of the current U.S. presidential contest made a sharp, surprise turn into the telecommunications space this month.

The left-leaning Washington Post published a report accusing John and Cindy McCain of seeking special favors from Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) to construct a cell tower near their rural Arizona ranch. As if any politician in Washington seeking special favors in Washington is breaking news.

Nonetheless, The Atlantic felt compelled to issue a follow-up piece, including a map Verizon used in its project, specifying the location of “John McCain’s Cabin.”

Apparently making much ado about nothing, The Post reported that:

Verizon ultimately abandoned its effort to install a permanent tower in August. Company spokesman Jeffrey Nelson said the project would be "an inappropriate way" to build its network. "It doesn't make business sense for us to do that," he added.

Instead, Verizon delivered a portable tower known as a "cell site on wheels" -- free of charge -- to the McCain property in June, after the Secret Service began inquiring about improving coverage in the area. Such devices are used for providing temporary capacity where coverage is lacking or has been knocked out, in circumstances ranging from the Super Bowl to hurricanes.

In July, AT&T followed suit, wheeling in a portable tower for free to match Verizon's offer.

Not only do the portable towers help the Secret Service, they keep the traveling press corps connected, too.

What is interesting about this story is not a theory about the appearance of impropriety, but rather, why in the heck wasn’t anybody pitching femtocells to the McCain family? This is a perfect fit for femtos, assuming the McCains have been able to corral a broadband connection for their ranch. (See Sticking Those Fem-Toes in the Water.).

Femtocells are in-home “base stations” that communicate with handsets in a native mobile protocol, like CDMA, GSM, or WiMax, using a broadband Internet connection for backhaul. The boxes are relatively cheap, as Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) sells one to its customers for only $99. It sure beats rolling portable cell towers across the countryside.

Maybe the next president’s assistant will carry a femto in his briefcase for such cell coverage emergencies.

— Michael Harris, Chief Analyst, Cable Digital News

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