PORTLAND, Ore. – Sprint Nextel Corp. is in talks to use new Alcatel-Lucent telecommunications gear designed to help wireless networks handle more calls. The discussions reflect the industrys race to avert a capacity crunch for mobile service.
Alcatel-Lucents lightRadio, introduced a year ago, is a Rubiks Cube-sized device that contains radios and antennae and can be mounted on rooftops, phone poles and bus shelters to expand a networks capacity in a given spot. LightRadio is one of several new technologies created to help the mobile-phone industry cope with the rising tide of calling and data thats putting a strain on mobile networks just as the wireless airwaves, or spectrum, used to carry traffic grow scarce.
As consumers do more Web-surfing and application-downloading on devices such as Apples iPhone and tablets using Google Android software, mobile-data traffic will surge 26-fold in the five years through 2015, Cisco Systems estimates. With limited spectrum available, mobile-service providers are looking for ways to squeeze more from existing capacity. That has Alcatel-Lucent and other gear makers racing for part of the $36 billion that Ovum predicts U.S. phone companies will devote to capital spending in 2012.
We use technologies to mine spectrum as much as possible, Bob Azzi, senior vice president of network at Overland Park, Kansas-based Sprint, said. That can give us some wiggle room along the way.
Multiple U.S. carriers are testing lightRadio and may begin deploying it this year, Marcus Weldon, chief technology officer at Alcatel-Lucent, said, declining to identify the carriers. Representatives of AT&T and Verizon Communications declined to comment.
We are in a spectrum crunch, Weldon said.
For the past two decades, the U.S. government has helped carriers meet increased demand by auctioning off large blocks of airwaves used to carry calls and data. Freeing new spectrum has emerged as a crucial challenge, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski said last year. Even after new auctions happen, it would take several more years for the buyers to deploy the spectrum.
As a result, U.S. carriers may increasingly depend on new technologies to keep up with user demand.
The No. 1 issue for us as we move forward, and for the industry, I believe, continues to be spectrum, AT&T Chief Executive Officer Randall Stephenson said during a January earnings call. This growth cannot continue without more spectrum being cleared and brought to market. And despite all the speeches from the FCC, were all still waiting.
Qualcomm, the biggest maker of mobile-phone chips, has developed its own software and chips for small cells, the size of a cigarette pack, designed to boost network capacity.
New capacity-boosting cells augur an overhaul of the design of wireless networks, which now rely on placement of large, expensive cell towers that transmit signals between handsets and the vast underground fiber-optic cable networks that send calls instantly across the globe.
Its going to change the way that networks get deployed, and were going to get the data rates through the devices up pretty dramatically by using that, Paul Jacobs, CEO of San Diego-based Qualcomm, said.
A recent survey by Informa Telecoms & Media showed that 60 percent of carriers say small cells of various types will be more important than traditional cells in advanced wireless networks.