China Mobile will help Alcatel build next-gen base stations

China Mobile's extensive use of fiber makes it a good fit for Alcatel-Lucent's lightRadio concept

China Mobile will help Alcatel-Lucent develop its next generation of mobile networks, the French network equipment vendor said on Wednesday.

In February, Alcatel-Lucent announced a new approach to building mobile networks, lightRadio, in which some traditional base station functions are virtualized in processing centers linked to a large number of small base stations. Key to Alcatel's concept is the lightRadio Cube, a block 6 centimeters on a side containing an antenna and a signal amplifier. Its small size will allow operators to put it almost anywhere, including on lamp posts and the side of buildings, as well as in more traditional places such as on rooftops, Alcatel-Lucent said.

For users, the smaller base stations have the potential to improve coverage and mobile broadband performance. For the operator, centralization of some base station functions could lower management and maintenance costs, and cut the electricity bill and carbon dioxide emissions, according to Alcatel-Lucent.

But for that to work, network operators will need to use optical fiber to link the cubes to the centralized functions in the network.

China Mobile's network has some attributes that makes it good fit for the lightRadio architecture, including an extensive use of fiber backhaul, according to Gee Rittenhouse, who heads up research at Alcatel-Lucent. Testing the technology in a network the size of China Mobile's will also be good for its continued development, he said.

Alcatel-Lucent isn't the only vendor pushing the use of smaller base stations. Ericsson has a similar vision of how future mobile networks should be constructed.

Getting China Mobile's stamp of approval and some development help from the world's largest carrier should give Alcatel-Lucent's lightRadio concept a boost. The two companies will also work together to adopt alternative power sources, including solar and wind, for smaller base stations.

"You don't want to have a tiny cube and then this huge battery or a tiny cube and a huge windmill, so we have to think about non-traditional approaches to sustainable energy for the cube architecture, as well," said Rittenhouse.

This is the second announcement Alcatel-Lucent has made with China Mobile in the last month. The equipment vendor also said it will participate in China Mobile's LTE TDD (Long-Term Evolution Time-Division Duplex) trial. The companies haven't yet decided whether they will work together on a TDD LTE version of the lightRadio Cube, Rittenhouse said.

China Mobile may like the idea of smaller base stations, but executives at U.S. carriers Verizon and Sprint seemed unconvinced by the idea last month at the CTIA Wireless conference.

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