Ericsson Puffed Up on AIR

As operators seek new ways to boost 3G and 4G LTE network capacity and performance, Ericsson AB's antenna integrated radio (AIR) product has been a big hit.

Unveiled in February 2011, Ericsson's AIR combines two radio access network (RAN) elements that are traditionally separate -- the antenna and the radio unit -- into one compact piece of equipment. The product has been shipping in large volumes throughout 2012.

According to Heavy Reading analyst Gabriel Brown, Ericsson said in the autumn of 2012 that it was shipping 2,000 units per week.

What makes AIR refreshing [ed. note: pun intended] is that it improves mobile network performance and it's easier to deploy than conventional products, according to Thomas Noren, VP and head of radio networks at Ericsson. The improved performance is most noticeable at the edge of a base station's coverage as well as in the uplink, which are keys areas where operators can improve customers' experience on the network, he explains.

The new antenna puts Ericsson ahead of rivals Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. and Nokia Siemens Networks, which do not yet have such products available, says Heavy Reading's Brown.

"NSN and Huawei are doing the same type of product, but they are being a bit more ambitious," he says. "They are going for a greater number of active antenna elements, which are more complex. Ericsson has gone earlier with a simpler, more practical product and they've been able to industrialize it."

"They've hit a sweet spot with it," he says. "It looks like they've judged it well, striking a balance between innovation and creating a product that is ready for operators to deploy."

It even looks good. "It's aesthetically pleasing and should save on site costs," says Brown.

T-Mobile USA has certainly been blown away by AIR [ed. note: couldn't resist]. The carrier is installing the antennas across its U.S. network as it works through its 42Mbit/s network upgrade and Long Term Evolution (LTE) rollout. This is the largest deployment of the product, according to Ericsson.

During his keynote speech at the 4G World conference in October, T-Mobile USA CTO Neville Ray described AIR as, "one of the most innovative products we've seen in this space for some time."

"That's proved a great product for us to speed through zoning, jurisdictional approvals and so on ... and for enabling us to very rapidly move through our modernization program," he said. (You can watch the video of Ray's speech here -- he talks about AIR at around the 8:30 mark.)

AIR is part of Ericsson's overall Heterogeneous Network (HetNet) strategy. The Swedish vendor's prescription for operators to improve network performance is to first add more macro base stations, then improve existing base stations by adding capacity or carriers with products like AIR, and finally, deploy small cells in certain urban areas where traffic is highest.

-- Michelle Donegan, European Editor, Light Reading Mobile

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