Base stations cubed

11 Feb 2011

In future, an entire base station will fit snugly in the palm of your hand. And the future is now. Or at least really close.

Earlier this week, Alcatel-Lucent (by way of Bell Labs) announced a new product line called “lightRadio” that essentially proposes a new BTS architecture that breaks the BTS down “into its components elements and then distributed into both the antenna and throughout a cloud-like network.”

The lightRadio line includes AlcaLu’s Multiband Remote Radio Head, Baseband Unit, Controller, and 5620 SAM common management solution. But the star of the lightRadio concept, however, is the lightRadio Cube, a six-centimeter box sporting SoC technology jointly developed with Freescale Semiconductor that combines a wideband active array antenna with software-defined radio capability to support 2G, 3G and LTE networks at frequency bands ranging from 400MHz and 4GHz.

“This [cube] enables an active antenna as small as 2 watts to an array of typical cellular capacity (30-60 watts). It can be deployed in big and small antenna configurations, all-around the city,” blogs Wim Sweldens, president of AlcaLu’s wireless division:

Big or small cells, it is one continuum, for these cubes can be stacked to build a macro cell or used singularly in a beam formation for targeted coverage.

lightRadio makes networks significantly lighter, much simpler to deploy and cuts the cost of site rental by 66%. For our planet, we can reduce power by 51%. With this small element, connected to microwave, it is now feasible for people currently not served by mobile data, to have access.

AlcaLu also intends to leverage the cloud for its lightRadio architecture via virtualization software, saying it will “collaborate with partners like HP to enable a cloud-like wireless architecture for controllers and gateways.”

The product line won’t be broadly available for another year, but AlcaLu named some big operator names for lightRadio trials this year, including China Mobile and France Telecom/Orange.

Naturally, lightRadio raises technical issues, such as the impact of its cloud architecture on mobile backhaul networks, notes Caroline Gabriel of Rethink Wireless:

… [R]adio signals are carried from these boxes to a central location for baseband processing – a heavy burden on the network, which will probably require fiber to connect the cubes to the central platform. In time, ALU aims to develop more advanced compression technology to make copper or microwave viable for these links.

There’s also the question of what it will mean for AlcaLu’s mobile equipment business, Gabriel adds:

The firm needs a radical approach to start to regain market share against Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia Siemens. Ericsson, from the lofty position of its market lead, has been resistant to the small cell concepts which will erode its macro base station margins, but is widely expected to have to accept the inevitable and make its own announcements at next week's Mobile World Congress.

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