Alcatel-Lucent's calling the new system lightRadio, and it involves centralising the processing part of the cell tower equation to a few locations, connecting those centres to the towers via fibre optic cables. Centralised baseband processing means that problems are easier to sort out - currently technicians have to drive out to the individual towers themselves - and that processing could be redistributed to different geographic areas as needed throughout the day. When people are commuting, double down on processing the signal for the towers near highways and train lines; during the day, make sure the downtown towers are getting the attention, etc.
But aside from those broad infrastructural changes, the antennas themselves are getting updated, too. Adorably so! Ars explains:
LightRadio uses a new antenna that, in Alcatel-Lucent's words, collapses three radios into one. The radios are tiny cubes of 2.5 inches square, and each can operate between 1.8GHz and 2.6GHz. They use tiny amps that can be located atop the tower, built into the antenna enclosure, which keeps the amp size down and dramatically cuts down on the power loss.
These radio cubes are stacked in groups of 8 to 10 in order to make an antenna element, and when one cube in the array goes down, the others remain unaffected. (In a traditional system, the whole antenna unit would fail.) The amps cover enough different frequencies that, in many cases, simply changing the software configuration on the baseband unit can control whether each antenna offers a 2G, 3G, or 4G signal.
The cubetennas also mean that cell towers don't need the "huts" at their base, or any of the air conditioners, fans, heaters or amps housed inside them. Now someone just needs to convince the carriers to start using them. [Ars Technica]