An innovative new mobile network technology will banish ugly mobile masts and help deliver rural broadband, its makers claim.
The system, dubbed “lightRadio”, shrinks and simplifies the electronics in mobile network base stations to slash costs and energy consumption by around half, said Alcatel-Lucent, the French networking giant.
It offers connectivity to 2G, 3G and forthcoming 4G data networks via tiny cube-shaped antennae that fit in the palm of a hand and can be installed wherever there is power. The cubes do not have the range of a traditional mobile mast, but they are cheaper and less obtrusive, so can be installed in groups to offer the same or better coverage.
Meanwhile the most demanding computing functions of a traditional mobile base station - handled by the “baseband” unit - are removed to a single microchip that can be located anywhere within the network. Centralising such processing will cut maintenance costs dramatically.
Major mobile operators including Orange, China Mobile and Verizon Wireless are now planning trials of lightRadio, to begin later this year.
Unveiling the technology in London, Ben Verwaayen, Alcatel-Lucent’s chief executive, claimed that “lightRadio will signal the end of the base station and cell tower as we know it today”.
The firm envisages the system will be used to extend the reach of faster broadband to rural areas overlooked by the ongoing, multibillion-pound deployment of fibre optic cables by BT. Sparsely-populated regions could be cheaply connected to the new cables via cheaper 4G links, offering theoretical maximum downstream speeds of up to 326Mbps.
The government has not yet laid out detailed plans to deliver faster broadband to the around 30 per cent of the UK that will not be covered by BT’s upgrade. It is widely expected that mobile broadband will be an important part of the eventual solution, however.
In urban areas, lightRadio could be used as an affordable means of increasing mobile broadband capacity. Demand for mobile internet bandwidth continues to rocket, powered by smartphone and tablet sales.
“lightRadio will help mobile operators evolve their networks to address the mobile broadband deluge,” said Wim Sweldens, president of Alcatel-Lucent’s wireless division.
The system was developed by Bell Labs, a famous name in the technology industry. Now part of Alcatel-Lucent, it has been responsible for dozens of familiar innovations including the laser, the CCD (the key component of digital cameras), and the first Wi-Fi network.