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Wireless industry working on alternatives to big towers

NEW YORK — As cell phones have spread, so have large cell towers — those unsightly stalks of steel topped by transmitters and other electronics that sprouted across the country over the last decade.

Now the wireless industry is planning a future without them, or at least without many more of them. Instead, it's looking at much smaller antennas, some tiny enough to hold in a hand. These could be placed on lampposts, utility poles and buildings — virtually anywhere with electrical and network connections.

If the technology overcomes some hurdles, it could upend the wireless industry and offer seamless service, with fewer dead spots and faster data speeds.

Some big names in the wireless world are set to demonstrate "small cell" technologies at the Mobile World Congress, the world's largest cell phone trade show, which starts Monday in Barcelona, Spain.

"We see more and more towers that become bigger and bigger, with more and bigger antennas that come to obstruct our view and clutter our landscape and are simply ugly," said Wim Sweldens, president of the wireless division of Alcatel-Lucent, the French-U.S. maker of telecommunications equipment.

"What we have realized is that we, as one of the major mobile equipment vendors, are partially if not mostly to blame for this."

Alcatel-Lucent will be at the show to demonstrate its "lightRadio cube," a cellular antenna about the size and shape of a Rubik's cube, vastly smaller than the ironing-board-sized antennas that now decorate cell towers. The cube was developed at Bell Labs in New Jersey, birthplace of many other inventions when it was AT&T's research center.

In Alcatel-Lucent's vision, these little cubes could soon begin replacing conventional cell towers. Single cubes or clusters of them could be placed indoors or out and be easily hidden from view. All they need is electrical power and an optical fiber connecting them to the phone company's network.

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