An End to Ugly Cellular Antennas?

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While the entire communications ecosystem has been buzzing for some time about what the “cloud” would or could do, the world of radio access equipment had stayed pretty unaffected by the hype. But things are changing rapidly, and the cloud is shaking up the staid world of mobile antennas too. On display at Mobile World Congress this year was a revolutionary technology that, apart from offering other benefits, could significantly improve the urban and rural skyline forever.

The familiar ugly antennas protruding from buildings and the unattractive cell phone towers dotting the sides of freeways could both be a thing of the past thanks to this development. They might even be replaced by pieces of post-modern art created with building blocks of the much smaller antennas enabled by this technology!

The solution… decompose functionality sitting at a cell site, reduce the form factor of the antenna such that it can be deployed anywhere that makes sense, wire it to a fiber connection – and let the other processing happen in the cloud (more accurately – at a data center located in the cloud). The new antennas are packaged attractively. In fact, I would not even mind having one of those small cubes sitting on my desk!

The benefits from this technology and its implications are immense. To name a few:

  • While the need for cell sites in is ever increasing, building owners are wary about letting antenna masts show up on their buildings as this can reduce the rental prices. With the new small, attractive antennas, this problem largely goes away because the antennas no longer stick out like a sore thumb.
  • In terms of capital expenditure, this technology is a boon for operators as they do not need to spend massive amounts on purchasing cell sites and constructing the antenna towers to ensure effective coverage for their subscribers. Even network equipment manufacturers stand to benefit: with the processor intensive work moved into a data center, the constraints of size and power for the processing unit are reduced. It is now possible to replace expensive hardware and DSPs with software running on low cost, general-purpose multi-core processors.
  • Operating expense is probably the area where this technology offers maximum benefits such as:
    • The costs of renting real estate on either buildings or towers goes down significantly, as the new antennas can be installed virtually anywhere, on lamp posts, inside buildings, outside buildings, etc., offering higher flexibility and lower rental rates.
    • Significant savings on power are now possible. Data is transmitted across cable, which has low attenuation and costs less. Additionally, it is possible to take advantage of server virtualization to distribute the processing load effectively, and optimally allocate processing resources by time-of-day, day-of-week, special event, etc. to minimize power usage. Cost-savings apart, this technology contributes to the “green” initiatives being undertaken by many operators.
    • With processing for multiple sites now being done at a single location, much of the troubleshooting can be done remotely without the need to drive out to the cell site to identify and fix the problems. Savings from fewer drive tests can contribute effectively to reducing the overall service provider operating expenses.
  • The solution with light antennas and distributed baseband processing adds a new dimension to network deployment. It is now possible to use the same antenna building-block (stacked in different configurations) to provide coverage for scenarios typically addressed by pico, micro and macro cells. Thus, for operators, this offers an opportunity to use a single platform for different types of radio access – rather than resorting to different form factors of base station equipment. Additionally, different frequencies and technologies can be supported on the same infrastructure.

The technology is definitely disruptive and its timing could not be better, especially in the light of the multiple deployment configurations being considered for technologies such as LTE. It also has some of the big equipment vendors and semi-conductor manufacturers rooting for and investing in it. The use-cases and implications stemming from this can be enormous… and we look forward to providing more of our insights on these in future posts as we analyze it further.
Admittedly, radio access equipment has joined the “cloud” party a little late, but it has done so with a bang.

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