Mobile networks are undergoing a significant transformation to all-IP, but one thing that has been slow to change are base stations and cell sites, which have been growing exponentially bigger as mobile broadband services take off. But those elements now appear to be changing, as evidenced by different products unveiled this week by some of the industry’s major vendors.

Alcatel-Lucent introduced lightRadio, a new cellular architecture that breaks down a base station into its component elements and then distributes them into both the antenna and throughout a cloud-like network. In addition, antennas serving 2G, 3G, and LTE systems are combined and shrunk into a single multi-frequency, multi-standard wideband active-array antenna that can be mounted on poles, sides of buildings or anywhere else there is power and a broadband connection.

Alcatel-Lucent claims that the solution is expected to reduce a cellular carrier’s total cost of ownership by as much as 50%. Similarly, operators can reduce their energy consumption by as much as 50% compared to current networks.

In the same vein, Ericsson announced a new radio solution called antenna integrated radio (AIR) that combines the radio unit with the antenna unit to decrease power consumption and shrink the size of cell sites — thus making cell sites more palatable to those in charge of zoning and issuing permits for them.

Ericsson said that field trials of AIR indicate that the solution can be integrated and installed in traditional cell sites up to 30% faster than other solutions, and the simplified cooling and reduced feeder loss can result in power consumption savings of up to 42%.

Simplified infrastructure is expected be a hot topic during next week’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. But as Peter Jarich, vice president with Current Analysis, points out, vendors can’t get too radical, as they start to differentiate their architectures.

“There can be no denying that what Alcatel-Lucent is proposing is a radical shift in how wireless networks are built – one that speaks to trends like the need for small cells, IT-telco synergies, multi-standard base stations and energy efficiency,” Jarich said in a research note. “Ultimately, however, it is just a vision. To the company’s credit, it’s a vision that is well aligned with a focus on small cells and partners such as HP. Yet it isn’t 100% novel — baseband pooling and active antennas have been talked about for years — and one that will take upwards of three years to realize.

“Perhaps more importantly, it’s a vision that is announced with a combination of different value propositions, different products and different technologies used to build those products. The result is something so broad and so deep that most operators will have a difficult time understanding exactly how lightRadio will fit into their networks and how it will impact Alcatel-Lucent’s existing RAN portfolio.”

Jean-Pierre Lartigue, vice president of wireless networks marketing and strategy with Alcatel-Lucent, said that the vendor is working with operators to determine how best to integrate the technology into their existing networks, but envisions the technology moving into mobile data hotspots initially.

What is more promising in the near term is the fact that Alcatel-Lucent said the new architecture eventually could enable cost-effective rural broadband services by reducing the cell site to one antenna and leveraging future advances in microwave backhaul and compression techniques.

For all next-generation networks, regardless of whether they are commercial or public-safety networks, enhanced backhaul is in continual demand. It may be an area where new and radical infrastructure might find a place first.

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.

For more information on next-generation networks, attend these sessions at IWCE in Las Vegas, March 7-11, 2011.