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MWC: Alcatel-Lucent new building-block architecture does away with the base station

Called lightRadio, the architecture turns radios into modular, stackable elements and sends baseband processing out to the cloud

Alcatel-Lucent’s (NYSE:ALU) future base station isn’t a base station at all. Rather, it’s a cute little cube, embedded with both antenna and power amplifier, that can be stacked with other cubes like building blocks to create any type of cell site from macrocell all the way down to the pico. As the for the brains of the base station, the baseband, it’s disappearing from the cell site entirely, moved to new mobile data centers which can handle the baseband processing needs of hundreds if not thousands of cell sites simultaneously.

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At an event in London today, Alcatel-Lucent unveiled what it believes will be the future architecture for wireless networks, lightRadio, a modular, distributed architecture that does away with the notion of the dedicated, vertically integrated base station. Rather than design a cell site with a tower-top antenna linked to a tower-mounted power amplifier linked to a base station unit at the tower’s foot, Alcatel-Lucent is breaking up the chain, collapsing some elements into easily configured and tiny modules while removing others from the base station entirely, said Jean-Pierre Lartigue, vice president of global wireless marketing and strategy for ALU.

“Radio base stations have been built with this same mindset for 10 years,” Lartigue said. “We’re making this stack-up at the cell site disappear.”

The first of the two basic components of the new architecture is the lightRadio cube—about the size of a Magic Eight Ball—which houses a flexible multi-frequency antenna, 2-watt power amplifier and internal cooling unit. Developed by ALU’s research arm Bell Labs, the cube isn’t powerful enough to power today’s monster macro cell sites on its own, but the system is designed to be scale to any configuration. Network engineers can combine multiple cubes to form wideband active antenna arrays at any frequency or radio interface. A full macrocell could be created by stacking 32 cubes into a single array, while a single cube could be used to create a tiny indoor picocell.

The idea is to build as much flexibility into the architecture as possible, Lartigue said. Rather than have an operator commit to a specific type of topology centered on macro-, micro- or metro-cells, an operator can build whatever solution makes sense at particular locale, using large arrays for macro-cellular deployments, while scaling down the array for smaller-sized cells. In fact, the terms marco, micro and pico become all but meaningless as operators are no longer view the network as a collection of specific vertically integrated base stations, but rather a collection of cubes distributed in different configurations and densities throughout the network, Lartigue said.

The second component, the baseband processing element, has been removed from the base station entirely. In fact, it’s been removed from the concept of the base station itself. The baseband has been reduced down to a powerful chip developed by ALU and Freescale Semiconductor. That chip can be located at some distance from the cell site in what ALU and its other development partner HP (NYSE:HPQ) are calling a cloud network. What’s more, there is no one-to-one relationship between each cube and each baseband chip in the network. Rather the chips combine to form a distributed processing platform, allocating virtualized resources to any cell site in need of the capacity. An operator could ‘double book’ the network the way airlines sell more seats than are available on flights, Lartigue said. Since every cell on a network won’t be used to 100% capacity at any given moment, an operator can build baseband processing capabilities equal to, say, 80% of the network’s total capacity, moving processing power from cell site to cell site as each becomes more or less congested throughout the day, Lartigue said. And since the individual cells don’t need their own dedicated capacity small cell solutions become easier to implement—dedicated distributed antenna systems and remote radio head configurations become obsolete as the entire network technically becomes a distributed system, Lartigue said.

The baseband cloud configuration also gives operators enormous advantages in the physical layouts of their networks, Lartigue said. The baseband facilities can be co-located at aggregation points next to fiber transport links, or in the case of wireline-wireless operators at the central office, where they share resources and transport connections with other networks or network elements, Lartigue said. The individual cells need only a broadband connection—whether fiber, microwave or T-1--to connect them back to the processing facility. By taking the most sensitive electronics out of the field and putting them into data centers, operators remove a huge deal of cost from deploying and maintaining their networks, Lartigue said.

“If you project what I’m saying forward, you can get a merging of the two infrastructures, fixed and mobile,” Lartigue said. “You’re putting all of these elements close to the broadband termination points and the fiber head-end. That results in a very integrated network.” Applications like policy management and network monitoring can be applied to both networks simultaneously. Fewer hops are required to move mobile traffic to the wireline transport network. “This change in perspective opens up the possibility of further integration of the fixed broadband and mobile broadband network,” Lartigue said.

Alcatel-Lucent will show off the new architecture for the first time at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona next week, but it plans to move quickly from the concept to the commercial phases. It is already doing advanced planning for trials with China Mobile (NYSE:CHL) and other global operators in 2011. It also won endorsements from FT-Orange (NYSE:FTE) and Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ, NYSE:VOD), though not specific commitments to deploy. Vice president of Technology Planning at Verizon Wireless Tom Sawanobori said in a statement that “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.”

ALU isn’t just releasing lightRadio as enhancement to network planning. It’s also claiming the architecture will pave the way for enormous operational and deployment cost reductions as well as significant energy savings. The small form factor of the cube allows it to be stuck anywhere, Lartigue said: the sides of buildings, on poles and indoor walls as well as on top of traditional towers. And since there is no base station at the foot of the tower to protect from the elements and vandals, site rental costs could drop as much as 66%. The primary baseband processing functions become highly centralized, cutting back operational and maintenance costs.

Finally the low power cubes are much more energy efficient than their multi-hundred watt predecessors. As an operator can scale each cell site to the exact number of cubes necessary to support its cell size, power consumption can be meticulously managed, Lartigue said. ALU is estimating power savings as much as 50% with the new distributed systems. In addition, by making the cubes modular, ALU is introducing multiple antennas into an architecture that previously used single high-power transmitters. Those multiple antenna configurations could pave the way for beam-formed antenna arrays that consume a fraction of the power of today’s macro-cells. Last week the GreenTouch consortium—which Bell Labs helped found--demoed a proof-of-concept antenna array that used 100 antennas to lower base station power consumption 1000-fold.

Alcatel-Lucent predicted that total cost of ownership could be reduced as much as 50% by deploying the lightRadio architecture, which for a U.S. operator could represent billions of dollars saved in network deployment and operational costs.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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