Carriers Face Backhaul Conundrum

A combination of technology concerns, data traffic growth uncertainties, and pure caution stand between mobile operators and the potential benefits they can gain from an Ethernet-based backhaul strategy, according to a new report from Heavy Reading.

The benefits of moving from traditional, expensive, inflexible, but reliable leased lines (T1/E1 circuits) to an integrated, Ethernet-based converged backhaul infrastructure are now well documented, following previous reports and a number of focused wireless backhaul conferences. (See Stitching the Backhaul Quilt, Insider: The Backhaul Question, Of Backhaul & Bean Counters, Backhaul Packs 'Em In, T-Mobile's Backhaul Bugbear , Mobile Carriers Tackle Backhaul Bottleneck, and 3G Drives Backhaul Spending.)

What's tougher to pin down is just how mobile operators can get from the traditional model of "more voice traffic equals more backhaul investment" to one of "more data traffic can be managed by the existing Ethernet backhaul transport infrastructure."

That's the issue the new report from Heavy Reading senior analyst Patrick Donegan, Ethernet Backhaul: Mobile Operator Strategies & Market Opportunities addresses.

Donegan will also tackle the migration minefield at Backhaul Strategies for Mobile Operators: Europe 2007, a one-day conference in Berlin on June 27 that, unlike wireless backhaul, is completely free of charge to service providers (and includes keynote speeches from T-Mobile International AG and Telecom Italia (TIM) executives).

One of the main factors holding back mobile operators from adopting new Ethernet backhaul technologies is that they're worried about trusting a critical link in their transport architecture to new technologies. "Most mobile operators are cautious -- in many cases, very cautious -- about how rapidly they are prepared to transition from a familiar and predictable (if expensive) TDM backhaul environment to an Ethernet backhaul network," finds Donegan, who conducted in-depth interviews with 25 carriers for his report.

A major conundrum is whether to shift with a "big bang" approach that could cut costs quickly but be risky, or whether to slowly offload certain types of non time-critical traffic, such as email, onto the new systems first to test the water. That "hybrid" strategy, though, means carriers are supporting both legacy and next generation transport networks, a situation less likely to help cut costs.

The operators prepared to jump in first with both feet are those that have committed to building converged networks designed to support multiple wireless (cellular and WiMax), and even fixed line (video), traffic. "Operators such as SK Telecom (Nasdaq: SKM) and Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) are investing in Ethernet backhaul for both cellular and WiMax traffic," writes the analyst, while "operators such as Orange [Orange (NYSE: FTE)] and Telecom Italia (TIM) are investing in Ethernet for backhauling not only mobile traffic, but also DSL and IPTV traffic."

Then there's the issue of technology interoperability and meeting the mobile operators' clock synchronization needs (important for time-dependent services and monitoring) with Ethernet-based solutions. "Standards-compliant synchronization solutions won't be generally available in vendor products before the end of 2007," notes Donegan.

But the vendor community can see there's money to be made from addressing carriers' converged data traffic backhaul needs, and it is working hard to deliver the right goods. Donegan assesses the offerings of 23 vendors, including Axerra Networks Inc. , Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU), Carrier Access Corp. (Nasdaq: CACS), Ciena Corp. (NYSE: CIEN), Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC), Fujitsu Ltd. (Tokyo: 6702; London: FUJ; OTC: FJTSY), Nokia Networks , Nortel Networks Ltd. , RAD Data Communications Ltd. , and Tellabs Inc. (Nasdaq: TLAB; Frankfurt: BTLA), and even identifies one of those named companies as "the most advanced vendor in terms of equipping mobile operators with the end-to-end solutions they need to leverage Ethernet in their backhaul networks."

— Ray Le Maistre, International News Editor, Light Reading

Interested in learning more on this topic? Then come to Backhaul Strategies for Mobile Operators: Europe 2007, a conference and exhibition that will provide an exclusive and intensive education in how best to lower the cost per bit of transporting traffic across mobile operators' backhaul networks. To be staged in Berlin, on June 27, admission is free for attendees meeting our prequalification criteria. For more information, or to register, click here.

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