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4G Backhaul: A Problem for All?

Dan Jones
LR Mobile News Analysis
Dan Jones, Mobile Editor

We already know that the challenge of providing back-end capacity for faster base-stations helped delay the launch of Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S)'s Xohm WiMax, so could 4G backhaul be a problem for all carriers moving to faster broadband networks?

The issue with 4G backhaul is a simple one: T1-line backhaul, which many carriers -- particularly in the U.S. -- use extensively, cannot cope with base stations that pump out data at hundreds of megabits a second to provide a few megabits-a-second data downloads to each individual user. Yet faster data downloads are supposed to be what sells so-called 4G services -- be they WiMax or Long-Term Evolution -- to consumers. Carriers, meanwhile, want 4G to further bump up data revenues, which are supposed to supplant declining voice revenue over time. (See AT&T & Verizon to Use 700 MHz for 4G .)

If backhaul proves to be a problem, then the promise of 4G will be broken as soon as users try and download a new ringtone, video, or MP3.

Infonetics Research Inc. analyst Michael Howard says backhaul will be particularly problematic in the Unites States, where carriers are still using copper for backhaul. European carriers have already made the jump to microwave backhaul because they couldn't get copper links as cheaply and easily as their stateside counterparts.

"T1 lines were much cheaper than European E1s," Howard notes.

Sprint is particularly dependent on suckling at the copper nipple. "Sprint is a special case," explains Howard. "I mean, they are out there early [with the WiMax deployment], and something like 80 percent of their backhaul is T1 lines."

Sprint wants to use microwave and fiber links for the WiMax sites, CTO Barry West says. It is already working with FiberTower Corp. to get faster connections on the backend but can't yet say when Xohm will launch. (See XOHM May Launch This Summer.)

Nonetheless, Howard believes that other U.S. carriers are going to be subject to at least some of the same issues. "It is going to be a problem," he says.

One advantage both AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and Verizon Wireless will have over Sprint is time. Verizon wants to start launching LTE markets in 2010 and AT&T is targeting 2012 for its 4G launch. Both companies can also deploy fiber to cellsites when they do a drop for their U-verse and FiOS services, respectively, Howard explains.

He thinks this will help add capacity in cities but that more rural folk waiting for 4G could be disappointed.

"People in the most rural areas are probably getting screwed and probably always will," Howard says. (See Country Blues.)

If the big carriers are troubled by providing 4G backhaul, they aren't showing it. AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel says that the number one U.S. cellular operator is "very comfortable" with its 4G rollout plans and has the radio headroom to crank up the data download speeds on its 3G network as it moves to the next-generation network.

"We will add backhaul capacity and we expect there will be a combination of both [fiber and microwave links], writes Verizon spokesman Jeffrey Nelson in an email reply to Unstrung's questions.

The potential backhaul bottleneck is not solely confined to the U.S. either, Infonetics' Howard adds. "Carriers all over the world are fast-fibering sites," he says.

"I talked to Telecom Italia about this recently," he continues. "They can't roll out fiber fast enough."

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

Interested in learning more on this topic? Then come to Backhaul Strategies for Mobile Operators, which will provide a unique perspective on the progress that America's carrier and vendor community is making in relieving the so-called "backhaul bottleneck" in mobile networks. To be staged in Atlanta, May 8, admission is free for attendees meeting our prequalification criteria. For more information, or to register, click here.

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User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 3:41:45 PM
re: 4G Backhaul: A Problem for All?
I kept my mouth shut earlier butGǪ
So Sprint says XOHM is delayed because of backhual challenges?
Sprint was so stupid in planning the XOHM network that they forgot backhual requirements and are now scrambling to recover? Well that is some message.

But no, backhual is a smokescreen message to avoid saying "RF performance, coverage, in-building penetration, capacity, quality, etc., is not quite where it needs to beGǪ" much less a whole bunch of other issues like lack of terminals, etc.
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 3:41:43 PM
re: 4G Backhaul: A Problem for All?
See will AT&T and the others want to use their 'premium' 700 MHz spectrum for backhaul though?

User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 3:41:43 PM
re: 4G Backhaul: A Problem for All?
Fiber would be ideal but not necessarily in the right place.
Wireless Broadband (20Mbps+/PTP) is ideal and can be deployed anywhere on the existing Cell Towers.

Vendors with products one can use today include:

Airspan with its series of existing PTMP radios operating in 700Mhz and FIxed WiMAX. Delivering 10-20Mbps per station.

Trango with their "Giga" 300+Mbps PTP Radios
Motorola with the Orthogon based (300-600Mbps)PTP radios.
Dragon Wave series of PTP radios.
Ceragon Ghz based systems

In short, feed the main gateway tower site with
fiber and switch and then use wireless PTP and or select PTMP radios to target deployed 4G network base stations. With Wireless no need for any Wired deployment and your network can be upgraded as needed in a timely manner.

Jim A
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 3:41:42 PM
re: 4G Backhaul: A Problem for All?
Oh believe me, that thought has crossed our minds...

User Rank: Lightning
12/5/2012 | 3:41:33 PM
re: 4G Backhaul: A Problem for All?
It is a huge problem, depending, of course, on who you are.

Verizon and ATT are affiliated with the ILECs who own the monopoly loop plant. So they can pay themselves anything they want for backhaul. Want to pay $5000/month for a local DS3 to a cell site? Sure, why not? The parent company (majority holder, in VZ's case) gets the money. And I strongly suspect that AT&T and VZ have a you-scratch-my-back relationship in each others' ILEC turf. The losers are the non-ILEC wireless carriers like Sprint, T-Mobile, Alltel and Metro.

The FCC ruled in 2003 that wireless itself is so competitive that ILECs do not have to make backhaul facilities available to them at cost-based rates. The ILECs are free to charge whatever the market will bear. In some places microwave is a possibility but an awful lot of cell sites are church steeples (very popular here in New England) or handy buildings, not towers, and microwave paths just aren't practical. Sprint unhappily uses ILEC facilities for >90% of its sites. Plus these are not sites that a competitive access provider would spend the money to build fiber to -- that's just uneconomic, regardless of Martin's parallel-wire ideology.

The correct answer in the US is for Special Access facilities (DS1, DS3 and yes let's return OC-3 to the tariff) to be made available at regulated rates that are based on a reasonable rate of return, not the 100%+ rates that VZ and SBC get now using rates based on 1980s avoided-telephone-toll charge methodology.

This is a very big issue in rural areas where the cost of Special Access backhaul is extremely high, given the $100+/mile charge for DS3s and $20/mile+ charge for DS1 interoffice haul. How much do you think it costs to get to "99.3% of the population" at those rates?
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