AlcaLu: We're Killing the Base Station

Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU) has a vision for future mobile networks and it doesn't include traditional base stations or cell site towers. (See AlcaLu Unveils lightRadio.)

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."

AlcaLu's vision
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.

The actual product portfolio will comprise a wideband active array antenna, multiband remote radio head, baseband unit, controller and the 5620 SAM common management solution. The wideband active array antenna will be available in 2012, while additional products will be made available by 2014.

"It's a bold move … it will take a number of years to build the product family for it," said Sweldons.

Early endorsements
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

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kiomarsanvari 12/5/2012 | 5:13:21 PM
re: AlcaLu: We're Killing the Base Station

This concept has been around for 20 years. In my company we even developed the products for ATT Wireless and they tested it in a couple of cities 10 years ago. However, it is the right concept and all OEM need to follow it. It is almost the same as Femto. SON and adaptive antenna are fundamental.

[email protected] 12/5/2012 | 5:13:07 PM
re: AlcaLu: We're Killing the Base Station

&gt;deployed dynamically where or when capacity and coverage is needed&lt;

But it requires a fiber backhaul? And how is that going to be deployed dynamically?

Also, does it require power at the cell site? is the range and capacity the same or better?

OK, so each tower may require smaller and fewer antennas, but guess what? I already have antennas, I don't NEED to replace them.

And software defined radio base stations? How often do you really change bands on a basestation? OK, you might shift around or add new carriers, but the bands stay.

Smaller, lighter antennas. SDR and beam-forming. OK, advances, but nothing that is going to redefine the business. Much ado about a little bit.


yarn 12/5/2012 | 5:13:01 PM
re: AlcaLu: We're Killing the Base Station

I'm pretty sure they mentioned various alternatives to hook up those cubes, including microwave and I think powerlines (they talked about lampposts, billboards and such). They said that a big part of the gameplan was to "connect the unconnected", i.e. rural areas, developing economies, etc so not just brownfield with exising antenna towers. Where towers exist they can be reused but the plan was to push these out further, and due to their small size you don't have the same real-estate restrictions as you do with cell towers. Anyway, should be interesting to see this stuff up close in Barcelona and dig a bit deeper:-)

songhai.wang 12/5/2012 | 5:12:57 PM
re: AlcaLu: We're Killing the Base Station

the lightradio seems to reduce the cost on the Base station. But how about the cost for the whole network? each cube will cost one fiber, one SFP, too complex for the acess these mount of cube to the centralised couputing cloud.

OldPOTS 12/5/2012 | 5:12:56 PM
re: AlcaLu: We're Killing the Base Station

If they run reliably over rural power lines they would fit into Obama's anounced plans to deliver to rural areas.

But the one I know of that is still running, located a couple of houses down, can't handle any reasonable amount of small msgs traffic after much effort.

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