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Wednesday, 11 July, 2001, 14:59 GMT 15:59 UK
3G talk gets cheaper
Nokia concept phone
Third-generation phones might one day look like this
By BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward

The call for cheaper third-generation networks could have been answered by a small British technology company.

PicoChip Designs has found a way to cut the cost of building future mobile phone systems by recycling the base stations used to create existing networks.

Many mobile phone firms are struggling to raise funds to pay for the creation of new networks because of doubts that consumers will sign up for them.

On the back of its early work, PicoChip has already attracted significant development funding, and hopes to have prototypes ready early next year.

Mobile woes

Help could be at hand for the mobile phone companies looking for ways to reduce the cost of creating future third-generation (3G) networks. Using these networks consumers will be able to get at all manner of information, multimedia and data services via their handsets.

Speed comparisons
GSM - 9.6 kilobits per second
GPRS - up to 115 kilobits per second
3G - up to 384 kilobits per second
But auctions for licences to run these 3G networks and the cost of building them have saddled many mobile phone companies with huge debts. Third-generation networks are expensive to build because the technology is new, and they need many more base stations than existing mobile networks to sustain high data rates.

Now, Bath-based PicoChip Designs could have found a way to reduce the cost of creating 3G networks by recycling the base stations that form the heart of the network.

Instead of replacing base stations to create wireless networks for new technologies like 3G, PicoChip is working on reprogrammable hardware that can be remotely reconfigured to support new standards as they are developed.

Network news

Peter Claydon, chief operating officer of PicoChip, said typically the computer chips inside base stations were developed to support one mobile phone system such as the Global System for Mobiles (GSM) that is widely used in Europe.

"With base stations, it can be a three-year cycle from starting design of a chip to having it in production," he said. "But the problem in wireless communications is that the standards change much faster and there are lots of them."

Mr Claydon said mobile phone companies could fit PicoChip hardware into existing base stations to help them create third-generation networks, but this would only produce a small saving because GSM uses far fewer base stations than 3G networks.

More likely, he said, was operators avoiding having to set up parallel networks by using PicoChip hardware to create networks supporting one technology, such as GSM, and then gradually switching over to a third-generation system as it gained subscribers.

Chip talk

The PicoChip hardware is made up of almost 800 individual processing elements. Often co-ordinating the work of multi-processor systems is tricky because some parts of a computational task divided among the elements get finished before others.

But Mr Claydon said because the chip was doing a single job of receiving a signal, interpreting the data within it and filtering out noise, interference and echoes, co-ordinating all the elements was much easier.

The base stations that PicoChip was working on should be no bigger than a laptop computer, said Mr Claydon, and could be strapped to the side of a lamp post or building, easing fears about the health effects of electromagnetic radiation. He said the first prototype base stations should be available in early 2002.

Picochip's research was already gaining interest from mobile network operators and the makers of base stations, said Mr Claydon. Already Atlas Venture and Pond Ventures have pumped almost 5 million of funding into the company to drive its research effort.

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See also:

06 Jul 01 | Business
3G operators urged to team up
15 Jun 01 | Business
DoCoMo withdraws 3G phones
12 Jun 01 | Business
BT and Deutsche Telekom in 3G deal
05 Jun 01 | Business
Germany to allow 3G network sharing
23 May 01 | Business
3G 'lemmings' face tough future
12 Apr 01 | Business
Isle of Man advances in 3G race
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