Published: 25 May, 2011
UK femtocell start-up Ubiquisys is certainly adding weight to the idea that a technology devised for the living room can be stretched to meet the needs of the carrier's data network. Hard on the heels of the firm's move into small base stations for metrozones, in partnership with Texas Instruments, it has announced another alliance, this time with Intel. The idea is to put a heavy duty processor and storage into the base station, to support applications and data processing at the edge of the network.
The two firms will co-develop a range of dual-mode 3G/LTE small cells running Ubiquisys software and Intel's processor architecture. The results will be demonstrated before year end and reference designs will be made available to manufacturers in 2012.
The cellcos have been pursuing the idea of deploying a dense group of small cells to create a zone of coverage and capacity for 3G and/or 4G. However, Intel's interest is to go a step further and create a 'cloud' of IP processing power at the same time, to handle network tasks and data apps.
This is the reverse of another popular trend among cellcos, the Cloud RAN, in which the ultimate goal is to centralize the processing load of large numbers of base stations in a data center cloud. In the Ubiquisys/Intel approach, an 'edge cloud' is created, pushing processing and intelligence into the base station itself and turning it into a computer.
Both routes will be valuable in maximizing the carrier's capacity and flexibility, but the edge-based option has the advantage of not requiring investment in high performance fiber backhaul or huge servers, as C-RAN - which will mainly be used for LTE build-out - does. Intel, of course, is active in both areas, and is working with China Mobile to push its cloud computing platforms into large mobile operators.
The key, points out Ubiquisys' CTO and co-founder Will Franks, is finding the best place in the network to do particular tasks. Just as small cells bring the wireless signal closer to the user, helping to improve data rates and quality of service, so localized processing power and memory can enhance the mobile experience a carrier can offer. Effectively turning the small base station into a powerful computer could enable applications such as local caching or uplink spooling, to improve video upload and download speeds and reduce backhaul bottlenecks, or Wi-Fi offload.
These are classic tasks for the network edge, but Franks sees a far wider range of applications developing thanks to the involvement of Intel and its huge developer base. "The great thing about Intel is that its Developer Forum can come up with its own ideas for the edge cloud," he commented. "We've talked about applications for femtocells for a long time."
The partnership with Intel does not conflict with Ubiquisys' deal with TI, since the larger firm is not bringing basebands and RF to the party, and will support the lower level platforms adopted by its new friend (Ubiquisys uses TI's system-on-chip for its new metrocell while it has worked with both Picochip and Broadcom/Percello for its indoor femtocells). Intel's Infineon Wireless arm has not, as yet anyway, taken an interest in the femto space.
Jointly developed products will be sold via Ubiquisys usual channels and OEM partners, but also by Intel, which is always seeking a greater role in the carriers' networks and devices. The first products are likely to use Atom but the agreement allows for the larger Xeon processors to be introduced if applications require that level of performance, a swap that Franks says would be simple to achieve.
There is a certain irony in putting so much processing power and intelligence into a beefed-up femtocell, when the trend in macrocells is to commoditize the base station and put the intelligence into the core or gateway. Franks speculates that the pressures on backhaul may reverse that pattern even in larger cells, in some scenarios, but also denies that this move will destroy the economics of bringing the consumer femtocell outdoors. Although the base cost of a complex metrocell will clearly be well above that of a residential or even an enterprise femto, in terms of opex the savings are similar in all environments, he argues. In particular, small localized cells can use low cost backhaul; they are self-organizing to reduce or eliminate RF planning; power consumption is low; and management is simpler and more DSL-like than conventional cellular methods.
"This is the future of small cells - not just miniature base stations but powerful computing platforms bringing the IP cloud as close as possible to mobile users and machines," said Ubiquisys CEO Chris Gilbert in a statement.