ONE of the enduring images that resonates through the Captain America comics and recent movie is of the evil Red Skull holding in the palm of his hand an object called the Cosmic Cube. Created by aliens, it has the power to change reality, and is the Marvel Comics equivalent of the holy grail.
Last week, I also held in the palm of my hand a cube that can change reality. Smaller than a Rubik’s Cube, it sports an appropriately iconic Sun-like diagram on one side and a computer circuit board on the other. In between, it houses technology that the Red Skull, back during World War II, would have regarded as alien technology.
This happens to be a fully functional cellular base station. It can be fitted to any street pole, lamp-post or random pot-plant in a shopping mall, almost unnoticed. Around a dozen of these will provide the same capacity as a full micro base station that occupies a serious chunk of real estate along with lawyer time for planning approval and warning lights to ward off passing aircraft.
So why do we still have weak signals, black spots without coverage, and disappearing signals indoors? Mainly because the device has just emerged from the labs in the past year. More specifically, from Bell Labs, the legendary hub of innovation now owned by Alcatel-Lucent.
Baris Ozkok, that company’s marketing director for emerging markets, was in South Africa last week for AfricaCom, the largest annual telecommunications event in Africa – it attracted around 8 000 business delegates this year.
While he had much to say about Alcatel-Lucent’s role in providing telecoms infrastructure across Africa, his face lit up when he unveiled his company’s answer to the cosmic cube: the lightRadio.
“It looks small, but it is powerful,” says Ozkok. “At AfricaCom, we are demonstrating it running at 100Mbps when you connect to it from a mobile device or laptop. At that speed you can even do mobile video conferencing. Depending on the capacity you need in an area, you can install several of the cubes, and you can place it anywhere. All you need is a power supply and backhaul.”
Backhaul refers to the data supply to the device, and it can come via radio transmission through high-powered microwave signals – of the kind that already serves many radio transmission requirements – or through a fibre cable directly plugged into the device. It can run on existing 2G and 3G networks or the new LTE – the forerunner to 4G – networks currently being deployed across Africa.
At AfricaCom, Alcatel-Lucent announced it would be working with the Smile telecoms operator to deploy an LTE network in Tanzania, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo – and would depend heavily on lightRadio.
“We didn’t invent it to replace existing cellular micro base stations,” says Ozkok. “The real problem is a shift in mobile network architecture because of mobile data demand. We forecast 25 times more mobile data being used in the next five years.
"And you cannot continue rolling out micro networks, because it is too expensive. An operator should be able to build out its network as capacity is needed, or use it in shopping malls or for temporary events like outdoor concerts or major indoor events.”
Alcatel-Lucent sees lightRadio providing a “metro” or metropolitan data layer on top of the existing “macro” layer that allows for widespread access but little data capacity.
For the same capacity, power consumption is expected to be up to 50% lower than existing base station technology. From an installation point of view, the saving is far more dramatic: it takes one maintenance person, rather than a team of technicians.
Most significantly, it addresses an issue raised by another visitor to AfricaCom. Arun Bhikshesvaran, global Chief Marketing Officer for leading telecoms equipment maker Ericsson, pointed out that a global trend in urbanisation – confirmed in South Africa’s recent census results – would have a massive impact on mobile data demand in Africa.
“By 2017, 60% of the world’s data traffic will be generated by 30% of people living in just 1% of the world’s geography,” he said. “Despite infrastructure problems, if you target dense urban areas with good solutions and low operating costs, you start to get the network effect where costs come down and service improves for everyone.”
A cosmic cube of communications is not a bad place to start.
* Arthur Goldstuck is managing director of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter or Pinterest on @art2gee