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Revolutionary radio comes in cubes

Network building with Lego

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Alcatel-Lucent has developed a magical radio that can do 2G, 3G and 4G in a two-inch cube, remove unsightly antennas, reduce network costs enormously, and save the planet too.

Claims like that should be greeted with scepticism, but it seems that Alcatel Lucent has achieved something quite remarkable, even if their application may take a while and it will require some significant infrastructure spending of its own.

The product suite, which Alcatel Lucent is calling "lightRadio", actually comprises two developments – the software radio with integral antenna mounted in a fist-sized cube, with minimal intelligence, and a cloud-based processing system for relocating the radio network to a data centre where it can be managed dynamically.

The cube measures 6.5cm a side, with a 2-watt software-defined radio that Alcatel Lucent claims can handle radio protocols from GSM to LTE and beyond, from 1.8 to 2.6GHz. So one could deploy cubes running W-CDMA (3G) at 2.1GHz and remotely switch to LTE at 2.6GHz with a firmware upgrade. That's something proponents of software-defined radio have been predicting for years, but no one has ever managed it before.

We still don't know how Alcatel Lucent is achieving that, the details haven't been explained, but the idea is to stack the cubes in piles of eight to 10, creating an array capable of beam-forming (aiming radio signals at a specific receiver) and with in-built redundancy – individual cubes can break, and be replaced, without critical failure.

Which is all very impressive, if it works, but it is the lack of intelligence that's supposed to save billions of dollars, and the planet. lightRadio achieves that by relocating the cabinets required by today's radio masts to the other side of the country.

The idea is to link up the cube masts, by fibre optic, to a central server farm that handles the radio network. Modern parlance requires us to say that it is a Cloud RAN (Radio Access Network), or C-RAN – though this network has nothing to do with the internet and used to be known as a "Base-Station Hotel". That server farm can then allocate resources based on network loading – so a city centre can have more radios during the day, which can then switch to the commuter routes as the day ends.

That means centralised air conditioning, power delivery and maintenance, which is obviously cheaper: 50 per cent cheaper according to Alcatel Lucent, which also reckons the carbon footprint of the network will be halved thanks to all those efficiencies – once one has built huge quantities of fibre optic.

Because delivering control to those cubes will need massive amounts of bandwidth, this is something that only optical networks will be able to deliver – despite Alcatel Lucent's claim to have reduced the load, through compression, by a factor of three. That means fibre optics, or free-space optics (lasers by any other name), which are expensive and take time to deploy – though perhaps not as much time or expense as building a traditional network.

Assuming the claimed capabilities are borne out, then Alcatel Lucent has achieved some very clever things, making practical several ideas that have been knocking around for a while.

Bundling them up with a catchy name is also impressive, though some bits may prove more easily applicable than others and by the time it happens the revolution will likely look more like an evolution. ®

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