A Game-Changer for Wireless Communications

A lightradio cube held in the palm of a hand

The lightradio cube Photo: CNNMoney

CNN reporter David Goldman describes a true marvel of ingenuity that is about to hit the mobile market.  It’s not the latest whiz-bang smartphone – they’re a dime a dozen now.  Rather, it will have a profound effect on the background infrastructure of mobile communications itself.  It is called lightradio. “LightRadio [is] a Rubik’s cube-sized device made by Alcatel-Lucent (ALU) that takes all of the components of a cell phone tower and compresses them down into a 2.3-inch block. Unlike today’s cell towers and antennas, which are large, inefficient and expensive to maintain, lightRadio is tiny, capacious and power-sipping.”

“The global wireless industry is spending $210 billion a year to operate their networks, and $50 billion to upgrade them, according to Alcatel-Lucent and PRTM. Networks are dealing with that cost by putting data caps in place with heavy overage charges and by raising prices on their smartphone and tablet plans.

“Despite all that spending and pressure on consumers to curb their data usage, the networks are fighting a losing battle. Mobile data usage is expected to grow 30 times in the next four to five years and 500 times in the next ten years, according to Alcatel-Lucent.” [Goldman]

I’m positively drooling when I think of the possibilities for education!  The potential for much cheaper but fast and powerful mobile connections could make the vision I sketched earlier a reality.  Think of lightradio as cloud infrastructure.  Alcatel-Lucent stripped out the power equipment from cell phone towers and moved it to centralized locations.  What remains can be shrunk to the size of a hand-held appliance and communicates back to the cloud infrastructure via microwave signal.  This produces many more advantages than just power savings:

“[The lightradio cube’s] small size and centralized operation lets wireless companies control the cubes virtually. That makes the antennas up to 30% more efficient than current cell towers. Live data about who is using the cubes can be assessed, and the antennas’ directional beams can be shifted to maximize their potential. For instance, radios may be pointed in one direction as people are coming to work in the morning and another direction as they’re leaving work at the end of the day.

“The lightRadio units also contain multi-generational antennas that can relay 2G, 3G and 4G network signals all from the same cube. That cuts down on interference and doubles the number of bits that can be sent through the air.

“Today’s cell towers, by contrast, send power in all different directions, most of which is lost, since it doesn’t reach anyone’s particular devices. They’re inefficient in other ways as well: Roughly half of the power from cell towers’ base stations is lost before it makes its way up to the antennas at the top of the tower. And they have separate antennas for 2G, 3G and 4G networks, causing interference problems….lightRadio’s smart technology and power efficiency can help cut carriers’ operating costs in half, Alcatel-Lucent believes.” [Goldman]

Trials of lightradio will begin this fall and Alcatel-Lucent expects to mass-produce the units next year.  Mobile service providers are running up against significant barriers in expanding their service – cell towers are very expensive and they are running out of room to build new ones.  I wrote earlier about the “coming storm” in mobile as the crush of demand collides with bandwidth limitations.  What people often say about the weather – wait 15 minutes and it will change – is certainly true in technology.  As frustrating as technology can sometimes be, one of the bright spots is how seemingly intractable problems can be nullified by the latest new development.  This just might be the case here.

Itpopular writes that Verizon, Purdue’s mobile partner, will begin field testing lightradio soon.  They note the following benefits:

  • Energy: lightRadio reduces energy consumption of mobile networks by up to 50% over current radio access network equipment.
  • Unwired link – The microwave backhaul link enables broadband coverage virtually anywhere using microwave to connect units back to the network.
  • Operating savings: when combined with small cells and LTE [Verizons high-speed service], a reduction of total cost of ownership (TCO) of mobile networks up to 50% is expected.
  • Enhances user bandwidth: by doubling bandwidth and simultaneously reducing the cost per bit, lightRadio makes possible new services and competitive service pricing.

So, come on, university IT Infrastructure people!  Help make my vision a reality!  Partner with a cell company to install these cubes all over campus, including inside buildings.  Get rid of your expensive, unreliable Wi-Fi networks.  Remove all the computer labs, take away all of the faculty and staff office computers (saving tons on maintenance) and negotiate great deals for all the students, faculty and staff to switch to dockable smartphones, and then run all of your services from the cloud.  Can’t you smell the savings?

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