Ericsson is joining the move towards using smaller mobile base stations, announcing Ericsson Air (antenna integrated radio), which aims to reduce power consumption while expanding coverage to more areas, it said on Tuesday.

The Swedish vendor's announcement comes on the heels of Alcatel-Lucent's lightRadio concept, which was launched on Monday.

The basic idea is the same: operators can use smaller base stations and cells, in addition to large cells that dominate today, to expand their networks in new ways. The new base stations also use fewer units and fewer interconnections compared to traditional sites, according to Ericsson. For operators, that means lower costs due to shorter installation time and reduced power consumption.

For mobile subscribers, the Air base stations can open the door to coverage where there was none before, such as in street and indoor environments that are hard to reach with traditional base stations, according to Jan Häglund, vice president and deputy head of product area IP and broadband at Ericsson's Networks unit.

Both Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson are planning to demonstrate their systems at Mobile World Congress, which takes place in Barcelona from Feb. 14 to Feb. 17.

The Air base stations integrate the antenna unit into the radio unit. The first generation of the product will put the baseband unit, which handles the data and call processing, into a separate box. But in the future it will also be integrated into the main unit, according to Ericsson.

The Air base stations can be used in 2G, 3G and LTE (Long Term Evolution) networks, and will come in different sizes. The smallest ones will be the size of a one-liter milk carton, and can cover an area with a cell radius of up to about 100 meters, according to Christian Hedelin, head of radio product marketing at Ericsson's Networks unit.

For the smaller base stations to work, automated configuration will be a key feature. The Air units will be able to listen in to the network, and themselves configure the relationship to other base stations located nearby, a feature called self-organising, according to Häglund.

Air is the result of a partnership between Ericsson and the German antenna marker Kathrein. The products will be commercially available in the second half 2011, but the smallest versions will arrive in 2012, according to Ericsson.