Alcatel-Lucent and the New Cellular Network

Carl Weinschenk

As technology evolves, slight advances in functionality build up, bit by bit. Then, all at once-or so it seems-enough progress has been made that things can be done in a dramatically different manner.

That may be the case with lightRadio, which was introduced on Monday in Europe by Alcatel-Lucent. The company has re-imagined the traditional approach to towers.

Today, towers are essentially standalone affairs that have just about all the functionality they need to do their job. This was okay for a long time, but clearly isn't the most efficient approach. Today, a tower may be called on to support 2G, 2.5G, 3G, 3.5G and, finally, 4G. Each makes its own particular demands-and require incrementally more power to do so.

Bell Labs-now part of Alcatel-Lucent and Freescale-has separated out all the tasks that a tower has to be performed. Some still are done at the site; but, wherever possible, they are done elsewhere. Wireless Week sums up the Alcatel-Lucent innovation nicely:

The company's lightRadio technology reduces the cell site to just the antenna by moving base station components to a system on a chip so that processing can be done where it best fits in the network, whether on the antenna or in the "cloud-like" network Alcatel-Lucent envisions as part of the technology.

Carriers are struggling with the onslaught of traffic brought on by smartphones, tablets and the rest of the relentless armies of mobile devices. Clearly, enabling the centralization and concentration of the tasks a cell tower must perform is a big deal.

If the announcement is followed by similar moves by other vendors, it would represent another trend in the quickly evolving world of cellular networking. Femtocells, tiny base stations that sit in homes, businesses and attached to DSL modems to improve indoor coverage, relocate data traffic from expensive cell systems and the Internet and are set for significant growth this year. The backhauling of signals is transitioning to Ethernet and, according to Dell'Oro Group Senior Analyst Loren Shalinsky, also is set for growth. Finally, the industry is trying to find ways to more easily accommodate the increased traffic by employing intelligent technology to dole out precious spectrum more efficiently.

The firestorm of criticism aimed at AT&T for its failure to adequately support the iPhone in New York City and San Francisco was a warning sign that a key element of the infrastructure underlying cellular communications is failing. It's good to see that vendors and service providers seem to have gotten the message.

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