The Telecoms Infrastructure Project’s first shot at lowering telecom network cost looks promising.
Base stations are fundamental building blocks in cellular networks. Ultimately they enable mobility by providing the wireless link to devices roaming in their cell. They are also very expensive. The closely-guarded price tag of a base station may begin in the several thousand-dollar range (for small cells). More often the price is closer to one hundred thousand dollars (for macro cells) depending on the technology (2G, 3G, 4G) and capacity (total data rate for the cell) used.
TIP’s $1000 base station goal
Using a strict cost-cutting regime, the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) now exhibits the design of a base station priced at roughly $1000. It’s still only 2G technology (GSM) but the trajectory is clear: future base stations are going to cost a lot less. As EETimes reports from a TIP summit held last week, several mobile network operators plan to begin field trials using the open-source GSM base station before April next year and an LTE version before June.
Initiated by Facebook in 2016, TIP is an alliance of operators, suppliers, developers, integrators, and startups whose remit it is to bring cellular communications to “new participants”. The alliance has over 500 members working towards this common goal.
Operators badly need to cut cost
Many industry pundits see the high cost of installing and maintaining telecom networks as a roadblock to future mobility needs. Particularly rural areas suffer from poor mobile connectivity as operators struggle to justify the high cost of infrastructure for regions with low population. There is much to gain from shrinking the CAPEX and OPEX expenses of telecom networks. Next-generation networks such as 5G could also benefit from a drastic drop in cost. The availability of new spectrum for 5G in higher frequency ranges, both below 6 GHz and in the much higher mmWave range, means wireless signals don’t travel as far, often even requiring line-of-sight operation between the transmitter (base station) and the receiver (a device such as a mobile phone). The impact on the network through the required cell densification needs a complete rethink from both deployment and operational perspectives. TIP is one such group of engineering experts tackling this task.
Cloud computing often provides a template for the future retooling of mobile networks. By connecting smartphones, tablets and PCs to remote data centers (the cloud) over a high-speed Internet link, massive computing power and storage capacity become “virtualized” as if residing in the device itself. Moreover, at a much lower cost – think about the many free cloud storage services available today. Achieving something akin to this model for cellular networks is certainly a goal worth pursuing. Ideally, installing a base station to expand a cellular network should be a simple as installing a Wi-Fi access point in the home. But that’s still a long shot from where things stand now.
Cellular is still expensive
Next to the cost of the base station itself – the cellular access point – there’s a whole string of further expense items that today’s operators are confronted with. To name a few: the civil engineering costs of deploying a base station/tower/antenna, licensing spectrum, leasing land or a tower, getting permits, providing power as well as backup measures for the complete system, protecting the facility with adequate security measures, and connecting the cell to high-speed backhaul. This complex set-up naturally entails expensive service and maintenance contracts too.
The base station in cellular is one the focus items of TIP’s project groups. By using widely available electronics and general-purpose hardware wherever possible, cost-cutting means avoiding proprietary ASICs and protocols too. Furthermore, TIP engineers use a modular design so that the hardware can be easily upgraded and made compatible with existing and forthcoming cellular and wireless standards. Today’s cellular infrastructure vendors protect their equipment development investments by keeping details under covers. In contrast, TIP open-sources both hard- and software in a further quest to bring down prices, allowing any party to customize a design for a specific cellular scenario.
Other parts of telecoms networks are undergoing a similar transformation. Instead of overhauling systems by adding physical switches with new boxes, networks are being virtualized by running software on off-the-shelf hardware. SDN, or software-defined networking, is a new technique making rapid inroads with operators where programs change the nature of the network on-the-fly.
Many challenges remain such as the huge expense of acquiring spectrum or licensing essential patents needed to operate cellular systems. The Telecom Infra Project is attempting to siege the existing cellular fortress and their progress is under close scrutiny by players in the telecom ecosystem.