Meet the New Mobile Network: It’s a Cloud

Relying on rural wireless won't save wholesale operators

Could these towers be erased from the landscape?

The crush of smartphones, tablets and laptops all vying for ever more bandwidth intense content, has forced mobile operators to beef up their backhaul, rally for more spectrum and implement new network technologies. It’s also reshaping the way they think and build out their networks. Or it will. Last week, I had outlined the the demand for data combined with more people wanting access to the mobile web are forcing operators to add more diverse network technologies, such as Wi-Fi, picocells and femtocells and of course more base stations, which are all of their effort to build more creative pricing plans.

Essentially the current networks and airwaves are unable to meet the demands of millions of consumers trying to download YouTube ( s goog) videos and Posting pictures to their Facebook profiles. Carriers have already embraced Wi-Fi offload but the thought is even that won’t be enough. Plus adding Wi-Fi, and even smaller base stations such as pico cells or even femtocells adds complexity to the network. As I said in my previous article:

But multiple networks and more base stations, as well as more demand, are forcing operators to undergo a shift similar to what the data center saw as the demand for computing began to overwhelm the profits and abilities of systems administrators to handle it. For example, when it took one person to manage 10 servers, owning 500 was an investment, but now with corporations owning tens of thousands, such a ratio would constrain demand. So places that required a lot of computing adapted and came up with new architectures and software that helped become the redundant, autonomic and cloud-based computing centers familiar today.That same shift will have to happen in the mobile networks, and Intucell is just one company that will help make this shift a reality.

My previous article focused on Intucell, a startup that’s pushing a technology to help operators reconfigure their networks in real time. There are other startups aiming to address this space, whether it’s with an all-in-one chip design that can work on multiple radio frequencies inside a base station or companies trying to deliver real-time pricing and billing information to operators. But the big gear makers aren’t oblivious to this trend, and today Alcatel-Lucent announced its lightRadio suite of products that answers many of the needs mobile operators have.

With this launch, Alcatel-Lucent has fundamentally rethought the way cellular networks are built. Instead of the traditional model of multiple radios and antennas cluttering up a large cellular tower with cabinets of electronics connected back to the web via a fiber or hardwired backhaul pipe, it has built smaller antennas attached to a single radio that can send and receive Wireless signals using multiple radio technologies including 4G 3G and some 2G technologies. These are then connected back to the network via microwave backhaul and the processing required to separate and route signals occurs deeper inside the network rather than at the base station.

The net effect of this is an operator can deploy more cell sites in more places and lower its cost of ownership (Alcatel Lucent cites a 50 percent drop in the total cost of ownership and its Bell Labs unit estimates that mobile operators spent Euro 150 billion for mobile access in 2010). For consumers, this theoretically means the end of ugly cell towers and better reception thanks to smaller radios located in more places. The product line includes a newly-designed smaller antenna, a multi-radio access network on a chip, a smaller base station called a metrocell, a rack of baseband processing equipment and other gear for the core network. Alcatel-Lucent expects to deliver these products beginning in the third quarter of next year.

Heading into the Mobile World Congress later this month, I expect to see a bunch of new companies and gear coming out to address the shifting needs of mobile operators. The need to deliver more bits and still maintain profit margins won’t be addressed solely with new pricing plans or with more spectrum coming down the pipe in fiver or ten years. New architectures and components will also help. Basically, were getting to the point I first covered back in 2009, when I first wrote about the need for a broadband cloud.

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