China drives servers to base station role

March 02, 2012 // By Rick Merritt
China Mobile wants to turn computer servers into cellular base stations. The world’s largest carrier discussed at the Mobile World Congress here its effort to use data center technologies to radically lower the cost and power consumption of cellular networks.

The so-called Cloud Radio Access Network (C-RAN) initiative aims to lower the power consumption of cellular base stations by a factor of five and cut their costs by an order of magnitude. Intel, IBM, Huawei and ZTE were among the initial partners in the program kicked off last March by NGNM, a trade group of telecom operators and vendors.

The plan faces several technical and business hurdles. But proponents have already created demonstration systems, conducted field trials and hope to start development of commercial products as early as mid-2013.

“Fundamentally, we could shake up the standard layered philosophy and make the telecom network look more like a Web mash up,” said Bill Huang, general manager of the China Mobile Research Institute, the R&D arm of China Mobile that serves 650 subscribers.

The C-RAN concept is to pack the functions of as many as a thousand base stations on data centers connected by fibre to multiple radio head ends. Such centralized systems could provide 15 percent reductions in capital costs, 50 percent decreases in operating costs and 70 percent reductions in power consumption compared to today’s distributed 3G nets.

“With the current architecture, outdoor base stations already consume 67 percent of the network’s energy,” a slice set to increase, said Huang. “It’s mind boggling to imagine what will happen if we continue on this road of low power efficiency,” he said.

IBM and Intel helped move 3GPP standard processes to software running on x86 servers rather than the ASICs and DSPs in traditional base stations. Along with Huawei and ZTE they created two demo systems that also tapped general-purpose graphics processors and software-defined radio components.

“It’s clearly not product-ready technology, but we’ve demoed the potential that with modern processors and comms links it becomes viable,” said Huang.

Several China cities conducted experimental deployments of the systems. Some are already moving toward more centralized cellular nets, but not yet including the C-RAN