(Bloomberg) — Sprint Nextel Corp. is in talks to use new Alcatel-Lucent telecommunications gear designed to help wireless networks handle more calls. The discussions reflect the industry’s race to avert a capacity crunch for mobile service.
Alcatel-Lucent’s lightRadio, introduced a year ago, is a Rubik’s Cube-sized device that contains radios and antennae and can be mounted on rooftops, phone poles and bus shelters to expand a network’s capacity in a given spot. LightRadio is one of several new technologies created to help the mobile-phone industry cope with the rising tide of calling and data that’s putting a strain on mobile networks just as the wireless airwaves—or spectrum—used to carry traffic grow scarce.
As consumers do more Web surfing and application downloading on devices such as Apple Inc.’s iPhone and tablets using Google Inc. Android software, mobile-data traffic will surge 26-fold in the five years through 2015, Cisco Systems Inc. estimates. And with limited spectrum available, mobile-service providers are looking for ways to squeeze more from existing capacity. That has Alcatel-Lucent and other gear makers racing for part of the $36 billion that Ovum predicts U.S. phone companies will devote to capital spending in 2012.
“We use technologies to mine spectrum as much as possible,” Bob Azzi, senior vice president of network at Overland Park, Kansas-based Sprint, said in an interview. “That can give us some wiggle room along the way.”
Multiple U.S. carriers are testing lightRadio and may begin deploying it this year, Marcus Weldon, chief technology officer at Paris-based Alcatel-Lucent, said in an interview. He declined to identify the carriers. Representatives of Dallas-based AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc., based in New York, declined to comment.
“We are in a spectrum crunch,” Weldon said.
For the past two decades, the U.S. government has helped carriers meet increased demand by auctioning off large blocks of airwaves, used to carry calls and data. Freeing new spectrum has emerged as a “crucial challenge,” Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a speech last year. Even after new auctions happen, it would take several more years for the buyers to deploy the spectrum.
As a result, U.S. carriers may grow more dependent on new technologies to keep up with escalating user demand.
‘Waiting’ for the FCC
“The No. 1 issue for us as we move forward, and for the industry, I believe, continues to be spectrum,” AT&T Chief Executive Officer Randall Stephenson said during a January earnings call. “This growth cannot continue without more spectrum being cleared and brought to market. And despite all the speeches from the FCC, we’re all still waiting.”
Qualcomm Inc., the biggest maker of mobile-phone chips, has developed its own software and chips for small cells—these the size of a cigarette pack—designed to boost network capacity.
New capacity-boosting cells augur an overhaul of the design of wireless networks, which now rely on placement of large, expensive cell towers that transmit signals between handsets and the vast underground fiber-optic cable networks that send calls instantly across the globe.
“It’s going to change the way that networks get deployed, and we’re going to get the data rates through the devices up pretty dramatically by using that,” Paul Jacobs, CEO of San Diego-based Qualcomm, said during a November conference call with investors.
A recent survey by Informa Telecoms & Media showed that 60 percent of carriers say small cells of various types will be more important than traditional cells in advanced wireless networks.
Revamping networks won’t come cheap. Each cell has to be attached to existing equipment. The market for outdoor cells like those from Alcatel-Lucent could rise to as high as $8 billion by 2016, according to ABI Research. U.S. wireless carriers will increase capital spending 10 percent to $36 billion this year, according to London-based Ovum. That’s double the rate of last year.
“There’s a real concern: Can we keep up with demand?” Alcatel’s Weldon said. “There’s only one solution, and it’s a difficult solution to afford. Carriers can’t afford to increase spending much. All this means, they’ll take longer to do it. Network congestion is always going to be a factor.”
Capacity constraints already interfere with call quality and download speeds in highly populated areas. According to J.D. Power & Associates, 13 percent of all calls made with smartphones experience some degradation.
“There are already isolated, but regularly occurring congestion issues in major cities,” Peter Rysavy, president of consulting firm Rysavy Research, said in an interview. “Over time, usage will increase, and it will constrain usefulness of the service.”
Carriers such as Sprint are coping in other ways, including shifting more traffic to local Wi-Fi networks, and using software to adjust mobile video so it takes less bandwidth during peak hours.
Sprint is also buying capacity from other network owners, such as Bellevue, Washington-based Clearwire Corp. As a result of the Clearwire arrangement, Sprint won’t face a spectrum crunch until 2016, Azzi said.
Clearwire is in discussions to provide airwaves to other carriers, Clearwire CEO Erik Prusch said in a recent interview.
“Spectrum deficiency really gets large in 2013-2014,” Prusch said. “We are talking to a lot of players, anybody who’s in need of it.” He declined to identify other carriers.
Another option is for carriers to raise consumer prices, discouraging network use. Tim Horan, an analyst at Oppenheimer & Co., expects U.S. service providers to raise prices on wireless contracts at a faster pace in the coming years.
“They are going to either charge for usage more or increase the minimum amount” paid for a data plan, Horan said in an interview. AT&T in January increased the cost of its cheapest smartphone data plan for new customers to $20 a month, from $15. Several carriers moved away from unlimited data plans to limited plans last year.
For some carriers, technological innovation may do most to avert the capacity crunch, said Reed Hundt, a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.
“God only made a certain amount of spectrum,” Hundt said in an interview. “To go beyond that you have to have a different architectural solution, and that’s where micro cells come in.”
With assistance from Ian King, Ari Levy and Tom Giles in San Francisco.