When microwave backhaul makes sense for wireless operators

Jessica Scarpati
23 Sep 2009

Microwave wireless backhaul has been touted as an economical solution for wireless operators in rural markets, but it may also make sense for carriers in urban areas who can't afford to build or lease a fiber optics network.

"Especially in an urban area, microwave is making a lot more sense just by virtue of how choked up a lot more things are in the ground," said Mike Jude, a program manager in consumer communications services at market research company Frost & Sullivan.

"Will a microwave backhaul link ever be up to the same standards as a fiber link? No," Jude added. "But if you're a new entrant [to the wireless operator market], then using microwave is a pretty good way to get into a market relatively cheaply."

Clearwire Communications, a wireless broadband Internet services provider (ISP) based in Kirkland, Wash., has built its wireless backhaul networks in Atlanta and Las Vegas almost entirely with microwave, said CTO John Saw. The company recently announced it would be testing a 20-square-mile site in Silicon Valley for its 4G Wimax service.

"We aren't applying a specific figure to the savings our microwave structure will allow us to realize, but when compared to the costs of leased access and to other backhaul solutions, our robust and low-cost microwave system provides a significant advantage for our Wimax service," Saw said.

Microwave backhaul can be appealing in urban settings for the same reasons it is in rural areas -- namely, fiber is expensive. It typically costs $100,000 to $200,000 to trench a mile of it, and it can take three to nine months to get the necessary permits to dig, said Amir Zoufonoun, CEO of Exalt Communications Inc., a wireless backhaul solutions vendor.

"There's this huge cost differential," Jude said. "[Microwave] doesn't involve rights of way in a traditional sense. It's usually a lot more cost-effective to put in a link through microwave." 

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