Carrier WiFi

LittleFeet Kicks at Integration

CANNES, France -- 3GSM Congress -- Texas Instruments Inc. (NYSE: TXN) appears to have put its big foot in it when it suggested integrating wireless LAN hotspots with cellular equipment at the base station level (see WLAN, Wideband: Together?).

First, SIM card vendor SchulmbergerSema pooh-poohed the idea on the grounds that it would compromise the security of user information in cellular networks (see Public Access BlackSpots?).

Now, LittleFeet Inc., the manufacturer of those extra-cute mini GSM base stations, has given the idea the thumbs-down, saying backhauling the data from the WLAN access point would cost too much.

Texas Instruments (TI) argued the opposite earlier this week, saying that in an urban environment, collocation of micro base stations with a wireless LAN public access gateway might cut overall costs.

Combining the technologies might help to reduce costs and truck rolls for cellular carriers, TI said. Moreover, the coverage radius of the wireless LAN system could be increased by distributing 802.11 radios in the areas where that signal was required, and these nodes could be centrally controlled at the base station.

When Unstrung caught up with John "P-Co Diddy" Combs, the CEO and chairman of LittleFeet, yesterday, we asked him about this idea. After all, the company has been garnering a lot of attention for its pico base station and mini repeater products (see Littlefeet's First Steps for the lowdown). The company seems like a logical choice to implement such a system.

"There's been a lot of talk about putting wireless LAN in base stations," agrees Combs. In addition to separate baseband and radio chips at the base station, different antennas would be needed for the different technologies to work properly. The WLAN radios could be installed with the LittleFeet SPICE repeaters, which are typically bracketed to lamp posts and other overhead poles

Combs says that all of the technical hurdles could probably be overcome. However, the issue with a wireless LAN setup like this is the cost of the backhaul connectivity to the Internet that would be required for a distributed network of 802.11 radio nodes.

A busy WLAN area might require multiple T1 lines to link the nodes back to the base station. Yet a single T1 line costs $500 a month, so the costs soon mount up, Combs says.

There are backhaul alternatives, but Combs doesn't hold out much hope for them either.

"There's been talk about doing this with fiber optic backhaul," Combs says. "The problem is going to be connecting the fiber to the wireless LAN. After all, if they can't even get fiber to the home, what hope is there of getting it halfway up a pole?"

— Dan "Halfway Up a Pole" Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung
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