Today the most expensive and complex part of the mobile cellular network is probably just a few blocks away from you. The towers our smartphones connect to don’t just house antennas and radios. In the shadows of those big transmitters are the cellular baseband processors that do all of the hard-core number-crunching in the network, converting wireless signals to zeros and ones before sending them on to the internet proper.
But a three-month old startup called Phluido, one of seven finalists for Gigaom’s Structure Launchpad next month, thinks that’s a pretty inefficient way to build a mobile network. Phluido wants to centralize the highly distributed nature of the mobile radio access network (RAN) to — where else? — the cloud.
As it’s doing with so many other industries, the cloud is swallowing up mobile. Carriers are moving their services and core networks onto servers, turning their telecom switching offices into data centers. But the radio network has so far escaped that virtualization trend – with a few exceptions — because of the extremely high transport costs of moving raw radio frequency information to a data center. To build the Cloud-RAN you basically need a heck of lot of fiber connecting every cell site, and few carriers can manage that task.
But Phluido’s founders and former Qualcomm systems engineers Dario Fertonani (pictured above) and Alan Barbieri believe they’ve solved the puzzle. They’ve developed a technique that allows the network to pre-process and compress all of that frequency data at the cell site and then send it to the data center where racks of Intel X86-power servers do the baseband heavy lifting. The result is a virtualized base station that can connect to the cell site via a much more modest connection, for example an Ethernet cable.
“Currently the most expensive piece of equipment in the mobile network is the baseband processor,” Fertonani said. “Once we can prove that we can move the baseband processor to the cloud, then a lot of new business models open up.”
What kind of business models? Fertinani and Barbieri only founded Phluido in March, so they’re still weighing different go-to-market possibilities. One avenue would be to license their intellectual property to traditional mobile network equipment makers. Operators could then build much “skinnier” cell sites and gain the economies of scale that come with centralizing their processing. But the more interesting model would be to offer a truly cloud-based service, selling mobile capacity on demand to any carrier who wants it.
Phluido hopes to launch a radio-as-a-service business model, Barbieri said. Carriers who have Phluido’s technology at their cell sites could juice up their networks with additional cloud capacity when they needed it, for instance rush hour in a downtown commercial district or at the stadium hosting the Super Bowl.