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Carriers Tackle Backhaul Bottleneck

Three leading European mobile operators will take to the podium at a one-day conference in London this week to tackle one of the biggest issues currently facing wireless carriers: the backhaul bottleneck.

Emin Gurdenli, technical director at T-Mobile (UK) , will provide the keynote address at Light Reading's "Backhaul Strategies for Mobile Operators: Europe" event at the Langham Hotel on Wednesday, and will be followed by Martin Kingston, senior designer for transport at Orange UK , and Ramesh Vasudevan, head of transmission architecture and technology at French carrier SFR .

The topic is critical for mobile operators because the cost of backhauling traffic from their base stations to their core networks is growing at an alarming rate, as high as 25 percent in some cases. That's because the volume of mobile data traffic is growing fast, and it's set to ramp up further as the carriers launch new services and roll out their 3G networks. (See HR: Backhaul Is Booming.)

As a result, operators such as Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD) are evaluating their backhaul options, and they are checking out the next-generation, IP-based options that promise significant cost savings over the current leased line and point-to-point microwave links used by the majority of mobile operators. (See Battling Mobile Backhaul Costs.)

Vodafone, for example, issued a backhaul RFI (request for information) earlier this year and has recently been evaluating submissions from 14 vendor. Those equipment firms are expecting to see a resulting RFQ (request for quotation) with detailed technical specifications early in 2007.

The event's moderator, Heavy Reading senior analyst Patrick Donegan, says a key area of focus at the event will be the pace of transition to IP transport in the radio access network (RAN), a process that has already begun in some markets. (See HKBN Uses Axerra for Backhaul, Time Warner Gets RAD, and Wireless May Boost Pseudowire.)

“IP transport in the RAN promises a lower cost, more flexible, backhaul network architecture, but vendors are also being asked by mobile operators to build in additional bullet-proofing, to build in the right level of reliability and security,” says Donegan. “One of the things the conference will be looking at will be the mobile operators’ perceptions of the cost/benefit value proposition of IP transport in the RAN.”

And as new 3G access gear based on HSDPA (high-speed downlink packet access) is deployed and comes online, so the attention will turn increasingly to the capabilities of the supporting transport network. "With HSDPA stabilizing and performing well from a RAN perspective, the big challenge for optimizing the user experience with mobile broadband lies in the backhaul network,” says Donegan.

“In the mobile operators, it’s the RAN guys that have tended to be the stars, while the transport guys have tended to get little recognition. The transport guys that can resolve the backhaul bottleneck cost-effectively now have a great opportunity to raise their profile, and their profession, within their organizations."

But with that raised profile comes greater responsibility and accountability -- pressures that could expose a potential weakness within some operators. In a survey of 40 mobile operators conducted earlier this year by Heavy Reading, 28 percent said they thought very few of the world's mobile operators had sufficient skills to deploy new generations of packet transport technology, while another 42 percent believed only half have the requisite skills.

Donegan will tackle such issues, describe the current topology of cellular backhaul networks, and outline the case for upgrading them, in the opening session of the "Backhaul Strategies for Mobile Operators: Europe" conference, which will also include vendor presentations from the event's sponsors, Celtro Inc. , Tellabs Inc. (Nasdaq: TLAB; Frankfurt: BTLA), Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU), and Sycamore Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: SCMR).

— Ray Le Maistre, International News Editor, Light Reading

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