Mobile World Congress 2014: What Operators Should Look For – Backhaul

Glenn Hunt

Glenn Hunt

Summary Bullets:

  • Mobile World Congress represents the best opportunity for operators to track backhaul evolutions.
  • Backhaul should be a hot topic again, since the backhaul network is clearly a point of both contention and opportunity.
  • A number of themes should dominate the backhaul discussion: self-organizing network (SON) and automation, scalability, convergence; using routers, switches, microwave and advanced copper-based solutions.

When we launched our backhaul coverage around 2005-2006, the backhaul network discussion was just beginning to transition from TDM to packet; for some, the thought of using a wildly unpredictable packet model to support mobile traffic was considered heresy.  However, 3G mobile data was beginning to rock the boat and IP was beginning to make its way into the mobile core network.  The backhaul portion of the network then began a rather slow and painful evolution, driven not by choice but by necessity.  The primary concerns were how to install more T1 or E1 circuits in a timely fashion to satisfy meager bandwidth increases and whether packet technology could ever provide the resiliency and accurate timing and synchronization so fondly held by TDM proponents.  Flash forward to today and seldom is a TDM discussion heard, and packet discussions are all about capacity and throughput – not surprising given the real demands being placed on the network as a result of LTE.  However, the bigger discussion centers around using multiple media types and the ability to ease operator pain points related to configuration and ongoing operations; in comes an SDN vision for backhaul.

The 2014 edition of Mobile World Congress will once again find the backhaul network in transition.  Some specific themes we expect to hear discussed and demonstrated include:

–    Capacity: Operators and vendors might differ on the need for specific scale and capacity in the backhaul network.  What is consistent is the continuing need for higher levels of functionality, whether measured in terms of throughput, sessions, timing and synchronization, or media type (fiber, microwave, copper… yes, copper is not dead as sometimes postulated).  Capacity increases should be evident with all forms of media, including 1-10G Ethernet over fiber, 1-4G packet microwave, bonded T1/E1, and revitalized xDSL with vectoring and bonding.

–    Self Organizing Backhaul: The backhaul network is ripe for automation.  No longer can operators afford to configure each link/hop in the network manually; nor can they expect to know where to place additional bandwidth, since user traffic has become unpredictable.  Backhaul looks to be another opportunity where vendors can differentiate their solutions by implementing virtualization.  Operators will need to understand the technology choices as well as the impact on their ability to meet the high expectations of their end users, all while leveraging these new techniques to reduce OpEx, improve visibility (analytics), and deliver on performance.

–    Proof of Concept (POC): Operators will want to see validation of vendor claims related to SON, capacity, interoperability, and the use of multiple transport technologies.  SON demonstrations should highlight the ability to optimize and simplify their operations and deliver more packets over their infrastructures.  The use of microwave and new cooper-based innovations should provide a comfort factor to operators that lack fiber to satisfy capacity and have an existing investment to extract one more magnitude of bandwidth.

–    End-to-End Suppliers vs. Specialists: There are many reasons why operators would want to deploy an end-to-end solution from one vendor; however, there is also opportunity for backhaul specialists to be considered, aside from the fact that most networks are multi-vendor.  Each specialist must deliver innovation in their specialty (i.e., microwave, copper, SDN, etc.) which can provide a solution to a unique or compelling network or financial issue.

About Glen Hunt
As Principal Analyst of Transport and Routing Infrastructure, Glen analyzes technology, product, and partnership initiatives of vendors who supply carrier infrastructure equipment. Specifically, focusing on vendors that produce core routers, edge switching, optical transport, data center interconnection, mobile backhaul, network management and operational support systems.

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