Vendors lay groundwork for 5G with greener and faster mobile networks

New systems from Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson increase capacity yet use less space and electricity

A new generation of mobile network equipment comes with lofty promises of better coverage and performance for subscribers, by making it easier for operators to add more capacity and support for new radio technologies.

Mobile operators are facing a number of challenges, starting with building networks that won't get overwhelmed by traffic growth mainly driven by video. The most straightforward way of doing this is adding more spectrum -- or lanes, if you will -- to their networks. It isn't a coincidence that the recent AWS (Advanced Wireless Service) spectrum auction in the U.S. was a blockbuster and that operators want to use Wi-Fi frequencies for LTE.

However, having the spectrum is only the first step, operators also need network capacity and functionality that can make the most of this increasingly valuable asset. The functionality includes an increased coordination between different network technologies and base stations of different sizes.

There will no doubt be some surprises in this field at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in early March, but telecommunications equipment vendors Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson revealed Thursday what the big attractions on their stands will be as they aim to take this vision from their labs to the cellular networks we use on a daily basis.

The two companies are building their systems on a modular architecture with more advanced software to handle the coordination between cells and network technologies. They claim this will make it easier to add new technologies in the future, including faster versions of LTE-Advanced and 5G. The core building block of both systems are new so-called baseband units, which handle the data and call processing. Both companies have vastly increased the capacity of their products compared to previous offerings, allowing mobile operators to attach more cells and handle more users.

The first installations of Ericsson's Radio System will run version 15B of the company's software. New features include handover between Voice over LTE and Wi-Fi calls. The latter technology has been getting a lot more interest from operators as they look to improve indoor coverage, according to Ericsson.

However, these upgrades aren't just about network capacity and functionality, Alcatel-Lucent's and Ericsson's products are also shrinking in size and becoming easier to install and more energy efficient. All three changes are important to make it possible for operators to add more capacity while keeping costs for electricity, site acquisition and installation down.

So if you thought vendors only had to think about radio performance you'd be wrong. For example, Ericsson boasts about a new rail it has developed, which allows radio units to be installed vertically or horizontally using one bolt.

Ericsson's system will be deployed from the third quarter, while Alcatel-Lucent has already started rolling out its products.

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