Alcatel-Lucent are often associated with urban small cells, where they have become synonymous with the term Metrocell. But they are one of the few end-to-end suppliers that address the whole small cell spectrum including residential and enterprise sectors. We looked into some of their recent changes and future direction.
Alcatel-Lucent's Shift Plan
Their new CEO Michel Coombes has made some bold changes in the past year with a program called "the shift plan", involving some radical streamlining, downsizing and selling off of non-core parts of the business.
Moving into the second phase of the plan, the new emphasis is on IP and future technologies. The R&D budget of $2.3 billion will focus more on IP and the cloud (aiming for 90% by 2015), continuing to support 2G/3G cellular while embracing 4G "big time".
A key focus for the company is small cells, and specifically 4G. Support for traditional 2G/3G macro products has been outsourced to Indian company HCL, releasing R&D staff to work on the new LTE products.
3G Residential, Enterprise and Metrocells
Alcatel-Lucent was one of the pioneers of Femtocells, enabling many operators to trial and launch residential femtocell services more than five years ago. Their customers include large multi-nationals such as Vodafone, where they are installed in more than ten countries.
The hardware manufacturing for their residential 3G products was opened up to ODMs who could compete on price and physical format, widening choice and diversity of supply while running the same mature end-to-end software. The product range expanded into higher capacity/power in-building and then outdoor metrocells. A key benefit was that the same small cell gateway could be used with all three classes of small cell, making the one-off investment to integrate a new RAN vendor payback more quickly.
These products would be highly suitable to provide 3G voice and data service in small to medium businesses, competing most directly with Cisco and ip.access in this space. It's one of the few proven, mature and complete end-to-end solutions available.
Larger buildings, especially where supporting multiple network operators (neutral host), would justify a different architecture. Other vendors offer:
- Local controllers for a group of Enterprise small cells
- Distributed radio systems, where an existing macrocell is decomposed and distributed around the building
- Distributed antenna systems (DAS), where standard macrocells are connected to a common/shared system that pumps the RF signals to multiple radio heads.
Partnering with TE Connectivity for larger in-building DAS
Alcatel-Lucent has teamed up with DAS vendor TE Connectivity for these larger buildings. Normally, DAS systems connect to the RF output of standard macrocell basestations – they look just like a normal multi-sector tower antenna to the macrocell. This in inefficient because the macrocell converts the signal to RF which is then attenuated, downconverted back to a digital stream, piped around the building, then re-converted back to RF.
John Spindler, Director of Product Line Management at TE Connectivity, told me how they've directly connected the digital output from Alcatel-Lucent's basestations using a CPRI interface. Although CPRI is a standard, each vendor has some nuances which they've implemented slightly differently. A shared DAS system could also be connected to different vendor basestation equipment (different operators often have different RAN vendors), with those using Alcatel-Lucent saving on the basestation hardware cost.
There can be further savings because the system uses less power and generates much less heat, reducing the need for costly air conditioning.
Partnering with Qualcomm for 4G
Alcatel-Lucent don't seem to be looking at LTE as just a small incremental step. They've teamed up with Qualcomm to create a new product platform that supports both 3G and LTE with a very impressive specification. Mike Schabel, VP Small Cells, told me at Small Cell World Summit that this is on-track for field trials later this year and commercial availability in 1H 2015. They've also announced there will be a residential version based on this platform to follow.
The so-called "god box" for in-building/enterprise would combine 3G, LTE and Wi-Fi working within the power consumption of Power over Ethernet – requiring only a single combined power/data cable connection.
The platform spec is very impressive and is aimed at the non-residential market.
- 2x 3G carriers
- 3x 4G carrier at 10 or 20MHz - FDD for now, TDD in the future
- 2x Wi-Fi carriers, both 802.11n and downward compatible
- LTE-Advanced Carrier Aggregation
- Software defined reuse
Navigating the plethora of Enterprise Wireless Solutions
The range of choice of different architectures for Enterprise In-Building cellular service is becoming complex and potentially confusing. Factors include where to locate the baseband processing, local controllers, supporting multiple operators/neutral host, support for accurate location services and LTE-advanced.
We've researched the various options and developed an editorial webinar which explains the architecture choices and discusses the trade-offs between these options. We've classified and positioned each of the major small cell vendors in this matrix to illustrate the landscape.
This editorial webinar (although supported by sponsorship from Alcatel-Lucent) has been developed independently by ThinkSmallCell and gives our view of the available technologies from different vendors in the in-building/Enterprise space.
Read our interview with Mike Schabel, Alcatel-Lucent VP Small Cells, at Mobile World Congress earlier this year.