Alcatel-Lucent Plans To Destroy Phone Masts

Could tiny lightRadio base stations from Alcatel Lucent make big cell phone masts obsolete?

Alcatel-Lucent has announced plans to replace big power-hungry cellphone towers with tiny base stations a fraction of their size, and will demonstrate the technology at Mobile World Congress next week.

The company showed lightRadio, a radio system in a tiny cube weighing 300g, which combines with a new system-on-a-chip from Freescale Semiconducter, to replace all the electronics of a base station in a tiny low-power package. Alcatel-Lucent says the system will ease the overloading and expense of mobile networks, while allowing them to reach out to those still off-net in the developing world.

Replacing big towers with little cubes

“By 2015, there will be three million base stations in the world, each of which uses thousands of Watts of power,” said Wim Sweldens (left), president of wireless activities at Alcatel-Lucent, before unveiling the tiny cube which can replace base stations, at a London briefing.

The radio electronics from Alcatel-Lucent can adapt from 2G standards to 4G, and support multiple standards at the same time, he said. Freescale is providing access on a non-exclusive basis, to its base-station-on-a-chip to complete the product, and Hewlett-Packard is providing cloud-based systems support.

eWEEK Europe holds a lightRadio cube

“There are three downsides to base stations,” said Sweldens. Traditional base stations are power hungry, and exclude large parts of the world, as well as requiring ugly towers which obstruct the view.

By contrast, lightRadio units, which use 2W, can be placed on lamp-posts, and other unobtrusive places, as long as they can be provided with power and fibre. They can be upgraded in situ to cover new standards such as 4G, and Alcatel-Lucent has a road-map for new features.

Overall this could halve energy use by cellular networks, saving the equivalent carbon output of 15 milion cars, and fitting the data network to handle an expected 20x increase in traffic by 2015.

But how will operators roll it out?

Three operators – Orange, Verizon and China Mobile – have signed up to test the products, which will be demonstrated at Mobile World Congress next week, and will be available as prototypes in the second half of this year. No operators spoke at the launch, however.

The tiny base station is not an obvious fit with most operators’ current network architectures, but operators would be able to “mix and match” the new style base stations alongside existing ones, said Swelden, adding elements to any network refreshes as they take place.

An array of  ten of the units could be placed in a conventional cell tower, producing some of the beam-forming benefits of the large scale antennas shown by the Alcatel-Lucent-backed GreenTouch consortium last week,which reduces power, said Ted Sizer, leader of wireless research at Alcatel-Lucent’s Bell Labs.

Superficially, the small cells are similar to femtocells, but Alcatel Lucent argued the idea is very different, since a femtocell is a small version of a traditional cell, while lightRadio is a different concept, in which much of the network intelligence is distributed in the cloud.

“This is the same as the transition from vacuum valves to transistors,” said Joe Weinman, of HP, which is providing the cloud element of the system.