Karl Edwards, Chief Commercial Officer at MLL Telecom, examines the role of microwave in the supply and backhaul of access – especially in rural areas.
The ability to access a viable Internet connection has become an integral part of today’s society – we work, we communicate and carry out all manner of day-to-day activities over the Internet. It is an essential tool for SMBs and start-ups in helping them grow and an absolute necessity when it comes to enabling remote working. It also plays a vital role in modern teaching methods.
The dramatic growth in recent years of the number of smart connected devices has led to a mobile data explosion, with users expecting connectivity on the move 24/7. It’s not surprising that this demand is putting an enormous strain on the ageing and congested 3G services, resulting in bottlenecks and frustrated end users. It’s only going to get worse as our demands for Internet access increase.
And let’s not forget that while 85% of the UK population are already online – a small but important rural minority are lagging behind.
Wireless as a solution to rural broadband woes
The Government has invested heavily in fibre as a solution to boosting superfast broadband in rural areas. However, because it has been unwilling to consider other technologies, and with BT now effectively holding a monopoly on rural broadband, small providers are missing out on opportunities – and the rural end-user continues to struggle with poor Internet speed and connectivity.
The National Audit Report shows that these users will continue to have nothing until 2017 under the current scheme. This has huge implications for communities – rural schools are falling behind their urban counterparts and many rural businesses are being forced to relocate in order to keep pace in the modern world.
However, alternatives to fibre such as microwave backhaul and radio point-to-multi-point technology can play a big role in helping bring faster broadband to areas that are currently suffering.
The transition to fibre can be complex, expensive and time consuming, and there is added complexity in rural areas when faced with rugged rural terrains and huge distances to cover. In some cases, it’s simply not practical – or possible – to dig ducts for fibre cabling.
Wireless backhaul networks, on the other hand, remove the need for wiring, can be set up quickly and are able to deliver high bandwidth across a larger geographical region, including remote areas, without the need to dig up any surfaces. They can help operators meet backhaul requirements in the short term and save money when adding capacity due to traffic increase or adding new links, and offer a useful and commercially competitive complement to the fibre network. So why aren’t they being deployed to help solve Britain’s rural broadband issues?
Dispelling the myths
There’s a misconception in the industry that microwave wireless backhaul networks are expensive to deploy and not as effective as alternative networks. However a study commissioned by MLL Telecom found that (excluding unknown quantities such as Excess Construction Costs and site acquisition), the price of microwave radio is cheaper than that of fibre in most cases. For areas other than price, fibre and microwave radio are also largely comparable. Latency, jitter and availability all have similar performance across fibre and microwave radio, as do standard provision times and repair times.
Wireless backhaul networks and LTE
Wireless backhaul networks also have a role to play in the LTE rollout.
LTE presents new design challenges for mobile operators. The increased speeds that 4G services and the LTE spectrum provide will require operators to re-evaluate their current backhaul network in order to be able to provide the capacity and quality that users are expecting. Operators will need to closely examine their deployed infrastructure and plan changes to support and fully utilise the spectrum they acquire, along with the relationships that are being put in place, with the most cost-effective solutions.
Operators such as EE have set up 4G networks as isolated pockets of mobile broadband that act as Internet hotspots in urban areas to make the most out of limited radio spectrum. However, UK operators can also use them as a substitute for fixed broadband services in rural areas, similar to how they are used in Germany to improve rural broadband coverage and offer 4G service beyond towns and cities. With a carefully constructed backhaul network design and the use of microwave radio, this could easily be achieved in the UK.
Striving to compete
In today’s highly competitive market, mobile operators are under increasing pressure to deliver a wide variety of services to their customers, but more importantly they need to be able to deliver high-speed networks that meet the expectations of end users. We live in a digital age where advancements in technology have resulted in not only an increasing number of mobile devices, but also a surge in digital data that is being shared and accessed online. The rise of social networks, increase in popularity in shared video and image-rich content, and the increased expectations for connectivity, mean that operators have even more to contend with now than they did before.
Wireless backhaul technology can help alleviate the pressure placed on existing fibre networks that can be costly and timely to upgrade and replace. Although fibre has been traditionally perceived as the best connectivity option, wireless is growing in popularity as operators recognise its potential. Not only can it help resolve existing congestion and rural connectivity issues, but it can also expand the portfolio of services operators offer their customers. Mobile network operators such as 02 for example are already starting to experiment by providing customers with free Wi-Fi hotspot networks.
In order to remain competitive and keep up with technology innovations that are driving Internet connectivity demands, operators need to re-evaluate their current networks and plan changes using wireless backhaul technologies to support and fully utilise their spectrum.