It’s time to start simplifying radio

Posted 12 May 2017

The digital revolution has changed the way we do business in many sectors, but the underlying techniques used for wireless network infrastructure have barely changed. With most wireless network infrastructure still being designed to order, companies with potential wireless applications can often be deterred by the perception that radio equipment is expensive and complex. While the digital technology element of cellular has already migrated to standard commercial platforms, for example uisng blade servers to host the LTE Evolved Packet Core (EPC) and realising baseband DSP as system-on-chip, we believe it is time for radio become a commodity as well.

The mixture of high-power RF, digital and analogue technology in the radio itself, along with the complex outdoor mechanical requirements, has meant that most radios are still custom-designed for a particular radio access technology (RAT) and frequency band. There is now growing support within the industry for greater simplicity and lower costs – we believe this can be achieved by working towards open interfaces, software and test systems and standardised modules to make specifying and buying radios much simpler. Large Internet stakeholders such as Facebook and Google are also making an effort to promote this movement, and to open up the ecosystem to the entry of new players.

The widespread availability of broadband RF power amplifiers and software-defined radio technology means that there is no longer any good reason why radios should not be available as a commodity item that would suit the majority of applications without customisation. This would allow service providers to differentiate their offering by the services and applications they support, rather than becoming involved in hardware. Obviously there will always still be a need for custom solutions for very high performance radios, but a radio as a commodity item supporting the key elements would enable many aspiring service providers to launch new applications. By creating new partnerships and challenging conventional design processes, as well as increasing volumes to lower costs, we believe that this will this help to open up the supply chain, enabling radios become a commodity item accessible to a much wider range of customers.

As part of this strategy, AceAxis has recently launched a new flexible radio platform to make radio technology more accessible and to help drive down costs. The Flexar platform for remote radio units (RRU) offers an unprecedented level of modularity and flexibility for a variety of applications that include disaster recovery, hardened industrial radio networks, and many forms of transport link, as well as small cells and traditional macrocells. Configurable for any frequency band in the range 400MHz – 6GHz, and with either FDD or TDD duplex schemes, Flexar has the ability to incorporate LTE-A carrier aggregation of up to five component carriers (5CC) and up to 8 x 8 MIMO.

Traditionally radios are designed to order, and follow a lengthy development process, as well as requiring specialist installation, but a generic radio platform like Flexar means that AceAxis can work with key partners to develop radios for any frequency band and at any power level, in only the time it takes to procure the bill of materials for volume production.

As a longer-term aim, COTS (Commercial Off-the-Shelf) radio would be even simpler. These would be radios built on a standard platform using readily-available qualified electrical and mechanical components like enclosures, power supplies and filters – an approach that would bring huge benefits in terms of both cost and the time taken up for qualification and certification. Developing partnerships and participating in industry forums, which will include standardising interfaces and test processes, will help to take this concept forward.

It is our belief that driving down radio costs and simplifying build standards can lead to a truly open, market-driven situation in which the entire LTE infrastructure will become commodity-based. As 5G and the IoT roll out this concept will potentially become even more important, as many of the proposed use cases do not fit conventional billing models and will need disruptive technology to achieve their full potential.

by Steve Cooper, CEO, AceAxis

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