Alcatel-Lucent forecasts ‘death of base station’

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Vendor claims costs can be halved in announcement a week ahead of Mobile World Congress

Wim Sweldens: trials of Light Radio in Europe, Asia and the
Americas later this year

The mobile telecoms industry should be able to reduce its operating expenses by up to 60% and its energy consumption by 50% by rethinking the way networks are designed.

A project by three leading vendors, announced today, suggests that operators should change the traditional architecture of mobile networks and break them up into individual components, with a cloud-like approach to processing.

“Building and operating a mobile network is expensive,” said Wim Sweldens, president of the wireless division of Alcatel-Lucent, one of the three companies working on the project. “What we’re doing is making the network less expensive.”

The other two companies working on the project — called Light Radio, to signify its ease of deployment rather than any optical element — are HP and Freescale, a semiconductor maker.

The project relies on research by Alcatel-Lucent’s Bell Labs, said Sweldens, and is loosely related to GreenTouch, a multi-vendor project started in 2010 by Bell Labs to reduce the cost and energy consumption of telecommunications.

“GreenTouch is an industry-wide project aiming at a dramatic power reduction in telecoms, especially mobile telecoms,” he said. “This Light Radio project is a very specific Alcatel-Lucent product announcement in the radio space.”

The vendor is even hinting that its rethink of mobile architecture could diminish the dominant role the base station has had for the past 15 years. Antennas will be shrunk into small, multi-standard units that can be installed wherever there is broadband and power, with the control moved into cloud-based systems. “It is the death of the base station,” said Sweldens.

The company chose to announce the project a full week before the start of Mobile World Congress, in a deliberate attempt to win the race for publicity ahead of Ericsson, Huawei, Nokia Siemens Networks and ZTE, all of which have scheduled announcements for the first two days of the Barcelona event.

Power is a key ingredient of the Light Radio project. “We are announcing a system on a chip which will work for 2G, 3G and 4G capacity in a fully software-designed way,” said Sweldens.

There is also a Light Radio cube, an antenna plus radio, amplifier and other components in cube with six-centimetre sides.

Sweldens confirmed that the technologies are only just out of the laboratory. “We are in close discussion with key customers and want to launch trials of the active antenna arrays later this year. I’d rather not name them at this point.” The company expects trials in Europe, Asia and the Americas later this year, he said.

The project is designed to address three key problems that the mobile industry has encountered, he explained: more energy consumption, the digital divide caused by the rise of mobile data and the need for bigger and higher towers to deliver services.

Alcatel-Lucent says that networks will be redesigned as a system of federated broadband hotspots that can be set up anywhere and can be powered by electricity, wind or sun. This will be cheaper, said Sweldens, claiming the company would reach a “50% threshold” in price reduction by 2013.

Existing network architectures would have to evolve to adopt the lessons of the Light Radio work, he added, with much of the capability of the system eventually moving to the cloud.

“There will be opportunities for operators in the next renovation cycle to catch up with these technologies. We’re expecting a factor of two capability improvement.” That means operators would be able “to spend less to do the same” or — more likely, in the light of continuing demand for data — “to spend the same to do more”. But the likelihood is that the industry will continue to grow, but will look at the potential of Light Radio to help fuel growth.

Alcatel-Lucent appears to plan an aggressive programme for this project. It plans to establish “a road map in September 2011”, said Sweldens, followed by an update every six months. “We want to create the value round these technologies.”

Meanwhile, also ahead of the opening of Mobile World Congress, GreenTouch gave an account of its first eight months’ work. Star of the demonstration was a proof of concept of a large-scale antenna system, which it claimed can perform as well as a conventional antenna but using 1% of the energy.

Gee Rittenhouse, vice president of research and Bell Labs — and one of the Global Telecoms Business Power100 in 2010 — said the project deliberately had ambitious goals. The initial work and projects “show that GreenTouch is on track to meet its objectives”, said Rittenhouse.

When Alcatel-Lucent CEO Ben Verwaayen announced GreenTouch in January 2010 he said that the goal was to reduce the energy used by communications by 1,000 times.

“We think it’s doable,” he said at the time. “It’s a game-changer for everybody. In five years’ time we’ll have products that are affordable.”

GreenTouch is working on or considering more than two dozen research projects. Operator members include AT&T, China Mobile, Chunghwa Telecom, France Telecom Orange, KT and Swisscom, plus Huawei and Samsung among vendors. GTB