Let's Get Small: Picocells Help Address Coverage Gaps, Bandwidth Demands in Cellular Networks

By Paula Bernier, Executive Editor, TMC  |  March 01, 2011

This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of NGN.

Cellular networks are growing bigger in terms of coverage and bandwidth capacity. But the infrastructure that makes up those networks is, in some cases, getting smaller.

The case in point here is the picocell, which mobile operators expect to use in the latest generation of their network builds to fill in coverage gaps and increase capacity in areas of heavy use.

Jean-Pierre Lartigue, product marketing and strategy for Alcatel-Lucent’s (News - Alert) wireless networks business, says the current generation of radio access equipment is not acceptable for all of today’s cellular network needs given the site acquisition and other costs related to macro base stations. So picocells have arrived to address these needs.

Alcatel-Lucent has a new product in this space called Lightradio. It’s a 2G/3G/LTE solution that’s about the size of a child’s block and can support up to 48 users.

Lartigue says China Mobile (News - Alert), Orange, Verizon, and two other wireless carriers already have endorsed the product, which will be in trials by the end of the year, and available in commercial quantities starting next year.

Along with Lightradio, Alcatel-Lucent has introduced a baseband unit in the form of a chipset. The unit, which can be located with the picocell, or be placed remotely to serve multiple picocells, creates the digital signal and brings it to the IP network, says Lartigue. Basically, it does traffic conversion and prioritization.

Bringing more and smaller cells into the network, and managing traffic in a way to help optimize cellular operators’ resources, requires a more intelligent approach to network and subscriber management, continues Lartigue. He says that picocells and macrocells must have the intelligence to communicate with one another to decide which is best suited at any particular time to take on new users as they traverse the wireless network. Alcatel-Lucent’s gear does this using a method called COMP, or co-operative radio, which evolved from MIMO technology. COMP is now part of the 3GPP specs, but came out of the Bell Labs (News - Alert) entity of Alcatel-Lucent, he says.

Having more radios in wireless networks also will create new backhaul challenges for mobile operators, Lartigue notes, so companies like Alcatel-Lucent, among others, are addressing that as well.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi