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Mobile cos eye the last frontier

Anyone who considers travel to remote parts of the globe as a refuge from phone calls should enjoy it while it lasts.

india Updated: Feb 18, 2006 14:57 IST

Anyone who considers travel to remote parts of the globe or in a plane as a refuge from mobile phone calls should enjoy it while it lasts, because areas until now out of reach are set to get connected.

A new generation of mobile networks is being built out of boxes no bigger than a microwave oven that are extending the reach of traditional networks of base stations, satellites and masts to places not worth the attention of big operators.

At this week's 3GSM wireless trade show in Barcelona, a crop of start-up and more established firms showed off technology that can be packed up and carried off to just about anywhere to connect hundreds of people at a time.

Israel-based Alvarion, better known for its WiMax broadband wireless technology, is one of the companies expanding into this niche but growing market.

Alvarion, which estimates the size of the current market at several hundred million dollars, has connected populations in Micronesia, on cruise ships and in disaster zones where normal communications have been knocked out.

It sells what it calls a network in a box -- a complete network containing a mobile switching centre, a base station controller and a base transceiver station which it says is the world's tiniest complete GSM network.

"Our smallest box can be lifted up by one person," says Gilad Peleg, Alvarion's director of compact cellular networks. He says such a box would typically be used to connect a few hundred callers in a radius of up to 20 kilometres (12 miles).

The network can be just local, for use in military or post-disaster situations, or can be connected through the box to a satellite or wider GSM network.

"We use it in places like Alaska where they have a base station on shore but there are fishing boats offshore that need some communication," says Peleg.

"They use their phones when they're coming in from their catch to actually sell their fish before they hit the shore, adds Alvarion's marketing chief, Carlton O'Neal.

In-flight calls

Other firms are impatiently eyeing the in-flight market, estimated in the industry to be potentially worth as much as $3 billion annually, despite surveys that show most passengers do not want to make calls in the air.

Most major airlines have already teamed up with telecoms partners to be able to offer on-board GSM mobile calls as soon as regulators give the go-ahead.

Connexion by Boeing has installed high-speed Internet access via WiFi in some planes for airlines including Lufthansa, and rival Airbus is part of a consortium working on an on-board GSM system.

Operators are confident they can overcome issues of aircraft safety and cross-border telecoms licensing, and OnAir has said it expects a framework European agreement on coordinating telecoms regulations as early as this month.

OnAir has estimated a potential market of more than 700 million users by 2009.

Calls in space?

Behind the technology stand firms like privately held Ireland-based Altobridge, which provides call-by-call satellite connections from a small box that can be installed on board.

Chief Executive Mike Fitzgerald told Reuters in Barcelona the equipment was significantly cheaper than alternatives, partly because it uses systems that already exist in planes for calls from seat-back phones to Inmarsat satellites.

Calls would be far cheaper than broadband connections currently on offer, he said, starting at perhaps $2 per minute with the goal of coming down to $1.25 in three years.

Altobridge, which says it has conducted a successful test with Boeing, currently uses the box in remote locations and on board ships and yachts.

"Right now in the Antarctic there's Australian government scientists communicating with their families on their GSM phones using this box," Fitzgerald said.

So is there anywhere it would be impossible to make a mobile call? "Underwater is the only place I can think of," says Alvarion's O'Neal.

Asked whether one could build a network in space, he says: "Probably. You could get the signal to anywhere."