Adding microwave towers to optical regeneration sites opens up easy access to nationwide fiber optic network

April 28, 2011

3 Min Read
Level 3 Claims Unique Backhaul Strategy

When is a regeneration hut a competitive tool? When it enables a long-haul network provider to compete in the exploding mobile backhaul market.

Level 3 Communications Inc. (NYSE: LVLT) is putting the network it built in the late 1990s to a new use, opening up some 200 regeneration and optical amplification sites as access points to its fiber optic backbone. By erecting microwave towers on the two-to-four-acre sites with huts that house re-gen/optical amplification equipment, Level 3 says it can give mobile operators quick and inexpensive access to backhaul coverage across suburban, exurban and hard-to-reach rural areas.

The arrangement has already landed Level 3 a major contract with Verizon Wireless for mobile backhaul.

"What we have done with this access product is create a mechanism for opening up those locations so that the more difficult and costly wireless aggregation points across the country can tap into our fiber network," says Paul Savill, Level 3's senior vice president of transport and infrastructure services.

Level 3 built its national fiber-optic network in the late 1990s as part of its plan to offer the first all-IP transport infrastructure. In that process, it had to build in controlled environmental facilities to house gear that would do optical amplification or signal regeneration, to maintain the integrity of lightwaves over long distances.

Of course, Level 3 was not the only one to build such a network: AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), Verizon (MCI), Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) and Qwest Communications International Inc. (NYSE: Q) did, too. Level 3 and Qwest built from scratch, and the other three operate their own wireless companies, making their role in the wholesale backhaul market less clear.

How it works
Level 3 claims to have a unique approach to opening up its regen/amplification sites. Dense wave division multiplexing gear lets the company break out individual wavelengths, Savill says, so Level 3 can take a 10Gbit/s circuit and drop in a lower-speed multiplexer to break out individual circuits, over which it can run multiple gigabits, tens of megabits or even a DS1 at 1.5Mbit/s.

"Wireless operators generally buy Ethernet interfaces from us at speeds of 100 Mbit/s or 50 Mbit/s up to 1 Gbit/s," Savill says.

Level 3 is building microwave towers at the site and, at the foot of the tower, adding an environmentally controlled hut for wireless operators' microwave equipment. The smaller structure is connected to the regen/amplification hut by buried cable that connects to a cross-connect panel within the larger hut.

Level 3 has about 150 huts set up for this process, and about 40 towers are set up or in process of being built. Savill says the company is working to get a total of 200 towers built on these sites. At other locations, network operators are doing direct fiber connections into the Level 3 backbone.

The microwave towers are big enough to serve multiple operators and reach multiple wireless towers in the surrounding area. Level 3 has a partner to handle the tower construction.

"Our goal is to create a hubbing point for towers in a particular region to get access to our fiber," Savill says. "We are leveraging our strength where we have fiber assets in the ground today -- it's very cost-effective for us to do this. The benefit we provide these mobile carriers is that they can get infinite bandwidth out of these locations. They never have to worry about constraints on bandwidth growth anymore."

— Carol Wilson, Chief Editor, Events, Light Reading

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