Optical fiber and transport system vendors may take heart from the results of our latest ultra-broadband poll -- Will optical fiber represent the best option for mobile backhaul as LTE traffic continues to grow? -- with nearly 47% of respondents agreeing that optical fiber is the optimum technology for coping with growth in mobile data traffic in coming years.
Although mobile operators have in the past used both microwave and old-fashioned E1 and T1 lines (based on copper) to ferry traffic from their base stations to the core network, these technologies will struggle to pass muster in the data traffic-heavy 4G era, according to these respondents.
Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD) has been one of the most vocal operators in complaining that microwave is simply not up to the 4G task. Those relying on the wireless technology will have to regularly upgrade their systems and bring additional spectrum into use to make it viable, and that could prove costly, argues the UK-based operator.
Rolling out optical fiber from scratch is even costlier, however, and most of what has already been deployed belongs to fixed-line incumbents. In many cases, its owners have not made it available to mobile operators on favorable wholesale terms.
Vodafone, for one, has urged European authorities to intervene, and another 26% of voters in the poll agree that standalone mobile operators will need regulatory support on access if optical fiber is to flourish as a backhaul option. (See Brighter Outlook For Dark Fiber in 4G Era.)
Even so, some in the industry have yet to be convinced that optical fiber is the best technology for meeting the backhaul demands of the modern-day 4G operator. Around 13% of poll respondents think it has merit, but only in specific market conditions.
That could, of course, include circumstances where regulators have been tough on optical fiber owners, forcing them to let mobile operators take control of high-capacity links through so-called 'dark fiber' arrangements. In the UK, former state-owned monopoly BT has been coming under pressure to do just that.
These skeptics may also have had in mind countries where optical fiber does not extend to many base station sites. Only mobile operators with relatively deep pockets can realistically contemplate filling these gaps with fresh optical fiber. Others may have to continue squeezing as much capacity as they can out of microwave and legacy fixed lines.
But that won’t be an issue, according to the final 13% of respondents, who believe that improvements to microwave and other technologies will make them more economical than optical fiber.
As in so many other network areas, a technology mix seems likely to persist for the foreseeable future.
— Iain Morris, Site Editor, Ultra-Broadband