Soon, will you carry your cellular tower with you?

2 U.K. companies shrink the typical femtocell to bring connectivity devices anywhere

Two firms in the United Kingdom are developing the smallest cell phone service devices in the history of mobile communications.

PicoChip and Ubiquisys are creating USB-sized devices that can function as a cell phone tower to bring connections to nearby phones, according to Technology Review, published by the Massachusetts Institute Of Technology.

The devices work like a femtocell, a small base station used by telecommunications companies to boost cell service to consumers in the home or to create a mobile hotspot. The devices use the Internet connection of a computer to link to the wider cell network and relay calls or data, according to Technology Review. The PicoChip version is the size of a USB and the Ubiquisys' the size of a small cell phone, such as the HP Veer, which is about the size of a credit card.

For comparison, femtocells found in the home typically range in size from about a set-top cable box to a Wi-Fi router.

Related coverage:

Smart phone use drives mobile data traffic into the exabyte range

PicoChip was able to make the femtocell design smaller by developing a smaller ship that can be run on 4.5 volts of electricity, which can be supplied through a USB connection. The new chip is 12 millimeters square with features as small as 40 nanometers, according to Technology Review.

Essentially, PicoChip and Ubiquisys are taking the cell tower base station straight to consumers' pockets in a fashion that could be much cheaper and more efficient in boosting data rates and may perhaps provide an alternative to international roaming.

The international roaming aspect could be a tough nut to crack in regulatory terms. Different countries and companies within countries own different spectrum widths, so the portable femtocell has to figure out which country it is in to comply with regulations.

Once plugged into a computer, it uses a combination of listening to nearby cellular base stations and looking up the IP address of the Internet connection to work out which country it is in,” Keith Day, a vice president at Ubiquisys told Technology Review.

In a government function, the ability to attain or boost signal performance for mobile devices could be a great use for the intelligence community or perhaps Interior Department employees collecting data in the field or in field offices off the beaten path.

About the Author

Dan Rowinski is a staff reporter covering communications technologies.


  • business meeting (Monkey Business Images/

    Civic tech volunteers help states with legacy systems

    As COVID-19 exposed vulnerabilities in state and local government IT systems, the newly formed U.S. Digital Response stepped in to help. Its successes offer insight into existing barriers and the future of the civic tech movement.

  • data analytics (

    More visible data helps drive DOD decision-making

    CDOs in the Defense Department are opening up their data to take advantage of artificial intelligence and machine learning tools that help surface insights and improve decision-making.

Stay Connected