Small-cell backhaul strategies

Phil Marshall/Tolaga Research
30 Apr 2013

Competition in the mobile industry is continuing to increase as markets saturate, subscribers become more demanding and mobile broadband traffic grows at an astonishing rate. In the face of heightened competition, mobile operators are seeking cost-effective network solutions to improve coverage, capacity and overall service reliability. Increasingly, mobile operators are looking to overlay small-cells to address local coverage and capacity challenges in their networks.

Although small-cells have been available virtually as long as mobile communications, small-cell radio base stations have only recently become sufficiently cost-effective for large-scale implementations. These implementations not only depend on low-cost radio equipment, but also require that the small-cells are sufficiently integrated and automated for cost-effective implementations, operations and backhaul capabilities.

While a great deal of attention has been paid to optimizing the costs for implementing small-cell radio infrastructure, recent efforts have focused on small-cell backhaul solutions that are capable of addressing the needs of high-capacity demands. Key to these backhaul solutions are low equipment costs and “zero-footprint” form-factors, flexible architectures and automated operational capabilities.

Small-cell backhaul providers including Alcatel-Lucent, BLinQ, E-Band, Ericsson, Ceragon, Cambridge Broadband, Radwin and Silku have introduced a variety of innovations to lower the small-cell backhaul equipment costs with integrated solutions that aim to deliver zero-footprint form-factors.

The small-cell industry has established a $5,000 average target cost for each small-cell implementation and is aiming for backhaul to constitute 20-30% of this cost, namely between $1,000 and $1,500. This price target challenges conventional backhaul solutions and has resulted in a variety of innovations, such as highly integrated and purpose-built architectures, seamless carrier grade Ethernet, and the use of both licensed and unlicensed radio spectrum for wireless links.

For most implementations, further innovations are still needed to reach the price targets that are being pursued by the industry. Given their impact on backhaul costs, we expect that many of the innovations being pioneered for small-cells will ultimately be applied to macro-cellular solutions in the future.

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