Escaping the backhaul trap

Oren Barkai and Adi Mendel, ECI Telecom
23 Nov 2009
Daily News

The drive for mobility, along with the introduction of the smart phone and its ever-growing variety of free and paid applications, is driving the steady growth of cellular revenues globally. These drivers, however, represent a financial risk to mobile operators who are in the process of choosing strategies to transition to next generation technology to support exponential growth in bandwidth demand.

What's more, uncertainty about the current global economic situation has caused operators to hold back on capex investment. This has limited their ability to replace legacy equipment, leaving them with increasing opex. Since most capex usually is allocated to support new services, a strategy to transform the network and its backhaul is required.

Backhaul migration challenges

Let's focus on the main issues in existing infrastructure. The first problem is bandwidth. In most cases, operators have designed their network infrastructure for 3G voice. Exploding demand for data services, however, is causing these operators to struggle to keep up with the bandwidth requirements.

The second problem is topology and is related to the problem of bandwidth. Network topology, although designed to sustain growth, was not architected to grow exponentially to meet today's bandwidth demands. Ring topology, which is very common, requires endless upgrades as well as interface changes in the Radio Access Network (RAN), or worse, double the investment, both at the RAN edges and at the network core.

The third, more surprising problem is inefficient opex allocation. Operators aim to allocate as little opex as possible to non-revenue generating components. But as legacy equipment ages, it is more likely to require more opex allocation for maintenance and repair.

There are, of course, other problems related to interoperability, footprint and so on. But these important problems have a lesser effect on network transformation and can be mitigated more efficiently.

In the face of all these challenges, operators still have no choice but to transition to next generation technologies. To add another layer of complexity, during the transition, operators also need to maintain the same levels of service quality and availability, or else risk losing customers. From the operator's perspective, transition calls for an interim period where the legacy network continues running while the new one is built, waiting to be activated. The transition may not be so easy - consider databases, network addresses and the process itself. Yet, it must be as smooth as possible so that it does not jeopardize the existing customer base.

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