Although you’re probably all too familiar with the reality of dropped cellphone calls, what you probably don’t know is that your mobile data and calls currently live on radio access networks (RAN) underneath cell towers. When there’s too much call data flitting in to one tower, too bad: traffic is congested and calls get dropped. It seems like an antiquated way to deal with traffic in 2015. If your website gets bombarded with an unexpected surge of traffic, you fire up more server dynos to handle the load. That’s what cloud-based mobile networks aim to do: move the call processing from base stations to racks of servers, and leave cell towers to just intake and broadcast calls.
To that end, Intel and Alcatel-Lucent teamed up to build out the first mobile network on the cloud. This is a big deal, since it could be far more flexible and location-agnostic: Your call data can zoom around the cloud instead of waiting in a queue for the base station sitting under a cell tower to process and route your call. According to GigaOm, the plan is to use servers powered by off-the-shelf Intel Xeon processors for all the baseband processing, which then move to Alcatel-Lucent software that parses that data properly–a process they call vRAN but which is commonly called cloud-RAN. This could pave the way for companies better able to handle data centers than telecom equipment–like Google, which just confirmed at long last that it’ll be entering the wireless carrier ring.
But making a digital mobile network is a difficult thing to do. That’s why most telecoms have said it’s totally beyond current tech. As Kevin Fitchard of GigaOm says, “Some carrier CTOs have told me they find the concept far-fetched and impossible to implement. For one thing, Cloud-RAN would take enormous amounts of low-latency backhaul capacity to move raw radio frequency information from the cell site to the data center.”
But Alcatel-Lucent is already in trials with 20 carriers to test parts of a cloud-based mobile network, GigaOm says. Instead of forcing wireless carriers to process everything on-site at the cell tower, off-site data centers can sit up to 60 miles (100km) away and still pipe call data back and forth to the cell tower. If Alcatel-Lucent and Intel pull it off, this means telecoms will be able to just update their server racks with new software instead of having to gut their equipment and replace the whole setup.
It’s complicated, but getting this figured out will pave the way for mobile networks that would rely on data processing tech instead of specialist telecom tech. Google’s just the most visible company to benefit from moving cell data to servers: Should the need for a complex base station be eliminated, only the processing software in the servers would need to be updated to improve functionality–improving the functionality and adaptability of pocket wireless carriers that don’t have a telecom’s deep pockets to buy entire base stations.