Based on technology developed at Bell Labs , AlcaLu on Monday announced a radically different approach to deploying radio-access infrastructure that it claims is greener, simpler and far cheaper to operate than today's mobile networks. (See The Lowdown on lightRadio.).
"It's almost like we're announcing the death of the traditional base station," said Wim Sweldens, president of wireless activities at Alcatel-Lucent.
AlcaLu calls its mobile infrastructure vision "lightRadio."
In a nutshell, lightRadio takes all of the essential elements of traditional base stations and antennas and shrinks them so that they can be distributed across the access network -- or cloud -- and deployed dynamically where or when capacity and coverage is needed. And the distributed network elements are connected via fiber-optic networks.
To make its vision a reality, AlcaLu has partnered with Freescale Semiconductor Inc. to co-develop a baseband system-on-chip and with HP Inc. (NYSE: HPQ) to work on enabling a "cloud-like" architecture for network controllers and gateways.
The first prototype in the product family will be released in September this year, but AlcaLu will have a live demonstration of lightRadio at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona next week.
While the first product will be available sometime in 2012, Sweldens said that now is the time to change the direction of mobile networking because the current course is not sustainable.
"The mobile industry, if we're honest with ourselves, is not a green industry," he said. "We're constantly adding more frequencies, antennas … There simply isn't enough space to put all this stuff. "[The networks are] too complex, too difficult to operate, and take too much power and labor to get deployed," he added.
This is more than a short-term fix, though, as Gabriel Brown, senior analyst at Heavy Reading, points out.
"This isn’t a repackaging exercise of existing products, it’s about long-term technology evolution that will take many years to play out," says Brown. "It is innovative, ambitious and is clearly only possible through a major, sustained commitment to R&D."
Here are the technology developments that will go into the lightRadio product family.
- lightRadio cube -- This little piece of technology can make cellular antennas practically invisible, AlcaLu claims. It's a 5cm cube, fitting in the palm of the hand, and uses active antenna arrays. It supports 2G, 3G, and LTE and frequency bands from 400 MHz to 4 GHz through its software-defined radio (SDR) capability.
- System-on-chip (SoC) -- Jointly developed with Freescale, this SoC allows all the baseband processing to be placed where it fits best -- whether at the antenna or in the network cloud.
- Compression algorithms -- Improved compression can reduce the amount and cost of fiber pairs needed to connect the antennas and the processing in the cloud network.
- Virtualized processing platforms -- AlcaLu will take its virtualization software and work with partners such as HP to enable "cloud-like" architecture for network controllers and gateways.
"It's a bold move … it will take a number of years to build the product family for it," said Sweldons.
And to show that AlcaLu doesn't just have its R&D head in the radio access clouds [Ed note: Sorry, pun intended.], several operators have voiced their interest in the concept.
"Alcatel-Lucent's new vision and strategy of mobile broadband is quite exciting: the new wireless network architecture and innovative radio proposal will potentially help us to achieve significant operating cost savings and be better prepared for future challenges," said Alain Maloberti, senior VP, network architecture and design at Orange (NYSE: FTE), in a press release.
Verizon Wireless VP of technology planning Tom Sawanobori said: "Verizon looks forward to learning more about the benefits of lightRadio technology and how they could be applied as we continue to expand and evolve our LTE network."
In addition, AlcaLu said it is in advanced planning with China Mobile Communications Corp. and several other carriers for co-creation and field trials of lightRadio.
The vendor unveiled its mobile network vision at a press event in London on Monday.
— Michelle Donegan, European Editor, Light Reading Mobile