Base savings

CommsMEA takes a look at some of the latest developments in base station technology that can save operators money; an essential factor when expanding networks in today's challenging economic climate

Tags: 3GAlan Dick and CompanyAltobridgeBase stationOmanQatarUnited Arab Emirates
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Base savings Altobridge’s Fitzgerald offers ways to improve network efficiency.
By  George Bevir Published  May 17, 2009 Communications Middle East & Africa Logo

The first wave of quarterly results has shown that mobile operators are not completely immune to the effects of the global economic downturn. While other sectors can trim costs by cutting back on capital expenditure projects, telecom operators may have little choice but to continue developing and expanding their networks. Either as a result of regulatory requirements that demand improvements to services, or in a bid to keep up with or overtake a rival, few operators can afford to stop investing in what is arguably their most vital asset.

In such circumstances new and innovative technology that can save money comes into its own. UAE-based firm Alan Dick Middle East designs and builds a range of towers for the cellular and broadcast industry, and one of its products, the rapid deployment unit (RDU) seems well suited to the needs of today's telecom operators.

‘Plug and play'

The RDU features a fuel tank, a small shed to shelter the electronics, two air conditioning units and a self-supporting 30 metre mast, all on two concrete plinths. The whole setup has a footprint of six metres by six metres and they are designed to be ‘plug and play'. Omar Al Marzooqi, business development manager, Alan Dick Middle East, says that they can be deployed and ready for the fitting of the radio equipment within six hours. In contrast, building a conventional site can take as long as two months.

Al Marzooqi says that operators are interested in them as an alternative to built masts, not only for the time they save but also because the design means that there is no need for potentially time consuming process of digging up the ground. Price is, of course, also a factor, and they are half the cost of a regular unit; while a conventional site can cost in the region of US$140,000 to erect, each RDU typically costs $80,000 (ex works).

Demand for the units has come from both operators in Oman, and through Alcatel Lucent on behalf of Vodafone in Qatar and Mobily in Saudi Arabia. In the last year, 20%-25% of Alan Dick's orders have been for this type of base station, and it looks set to increase, according to Al Marzooqi.

"This seems to be where it's moving for the operators," he says. "It's half the cost and up to half the footprint. It seems like the market is changing. People are saying, ‘ok, if I'm rolling out a network I might as well do it all with these'. It's all about speed at the moment. How quickly can we get sites up? And as time goes on, it is more and more about cost," he says.

Al Marzooqi says that he has noticed that "one or two" operators in the UAE and Oman have started scaling back their infrastructure projects, and he admits that rival tower building companies can offer cheaper solutions (although he claims they are not as robust as Alan Dick's). So providing a lower cost solution is a way for Alan Dick to make sure it has a suitable product to offer operators.

Increased efficiency

Another cost-cutting measure that has received lots of attention over the past few months (mainly as a result of Vodafone's numerous infrastructure share deals, including one with Qtel in Qatar) is mast sharing. It is something that the manufacturers of such equipment need to consider when the towers are being designed and built, as loading factors have a great deal of effect on the structure.

"It might happen more," Al Marzooqi admits. "I think people have cottoned on that there is a big source of revenue there. Our units are built for multiple operators. The RDU unit will hold three operators."

Squeezing more value from existing technology is what one of Altobridge's products is chiefly concerned with. The Ireland-based firm provides telecommunication solutions that cut the cost of connecting wireless devices, and its "local connectivity" product can reduce the cost of backhaul by cutting out the unnecessary transmission of locally originated and destined calls out of the local area to the mobile switching centre (MSC). Instead, the base station switches local calls locally, keeping backhaul costs to a minimum.

The savings that it promises were enough to pique Ericsson's interest, and the vendor has licensed the technology for use across its portfolio of base stations.

Mike Fitzgerald, Altobridge CEO, says the breakthrough occurred two years ago when they found they could switch voice calls locally at a base station. "Soft switches do exist and have been around for a while," he says. "You can put a soft switch at a base station and switch the calls locally. Soft switches aren't that expensive, but operationally it is a nightmare for operators to manage that many sites, so they needed something different. They needed to be able to do this without turning their base station into a switch, and that's the key breakthrough that we had."

Local data

The first version relates to voice, and is suited to emerging markets and remote base stations where there is a lot of local communication going on. Altobridge is now working on a solution that will perform the same function for data.

"Most network topology, no matter what technology, is very hierarchical," Fitzgerald says. "So what happens is that you move up and down through the networks and when a user communicates with another user it can be very data intensive, with the data going up and down through the networks."

Fitzgerald says that transmitting large amounts of data back through the networks puts them under strain they were not built to put up with. With smart phones growing in popularity, and many mobiles able to access the internet, the demand for quick information delivered to mobile devices is growing as is the insistence on quicker speeds.

"If you are just surfing the web on your mobile phone or you are communicating with your school friends and you are sending information and pictures, it becomes incredibly inefficient in the network topology that we have in a traditional wireless sense. So what we have done is add further intelligence to the network on this user," he says.

"If we do that, then the cost of running that network can be reduced. And it's critical that we do. Because we can't have a situation where ARPU is dropping but the amount of data that is being used is increasing dramatically and the revenue isn't being generated from that data, and the network operator's bottom line starts to disappear."

The first major licensing agreement for the voice solution was signed in 2007 with Ericsson. The data version is undergoing tests relating to patents, but so far Fitzgerald says it has seen increased efficiency of approximately 30% to 45% of bandwidth.

"If you had a GSM base station in the traditional 2G, you'd be looking at having an E1 or a G1 to keep that base station running under standard traffic measurements. If you have a 3G base station you need to have about eight E1s to that base station. So for us to come in with a proposal that will take a couple of those E1s away is a dramatic saving.

So far, demand for the products has come from emerging markets in South America, across the Middle East and into Asia with the local connectivity solution already sold to operators in Africa.

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