Thursday, 13 December 2012 10:47 | James Barton
In many emerging markets there is a need for more spectrum, both for backhaul and access. This is because there is a lot of growth and no alternative – GPON and DSL connections typically aren’t present, and they are often difficult to deploy in more remote regions. High-capacity last-mile solutions are far preferable to emerging market providers - spectrum is a scarce resource, so it’s important to find more intelligent ways to make use of it.
It’s therefore important for operators to find an access technology which can fit in with their current strategy, as well as being able to cope with future developments. Various last-mile technologies are gaining traction, and an important common feature is the ease with which they can adapt to existing network architecture.
With the increasing availability of fibre in many emerging markets and particularly Africa, operators with access to a cable landing need a solution that can deliver bandwidth to their subscribers. Due to infrastructure limitations, cable operators in the Horn of Africa region have typically been unable to distribute the level of bandwidth that they should be able to. While there are five landed cables in Djibouti - along with numerous others that connect to different points of Africa - it’s extremely difficult to get the volume to higher levels.
This was the problem facing Somcable, international fibre optic company that has invested millions of dollars in rolling out fibre optic cable across the Horn of Africa. With its core MPLS network interconnected to the IPX in Djibouti, the firm essentially needed to construct an access network. CEO Mike Cothill describes how it became apparent that fibre-through-the-air (FTTA) would be a viable option for this.
“Once the first towers had been built, they could be added to as needed, essentially reaching further as the customer base grew”, says Cothill. “For the $20 customer, we use an arrangement whereby local residents can take their laptop to a kiosk that we provide, rather than a local internet cafe which typically have terrible bandwidth – 64k, 128k; even the 1Mb links are shared.”
With inexpensive backhaul to the undersea cables, it’s possible to offer the volume to end consumers using this reseller model. The kiosks sell scratch cards to customers, who can then use these to obtain a code in order to access high-speed internet. Each kiosk is connected to a FTTA solution provided by access specialist Bluwan; the box generates Wi-Fi as an access technology, with the kiosk receiving up to 100Mbps, allowing it to function in a similar manner to a small cell. By sharing this bandwidth between all the users at the kiosk, the cost can be reduced.
Combining fibre optic with FTTA is a perfect match, with FTTA compensating for the access weakness. The access side is also overlaid with LTE; coupled with a content delivery network, this allows customers to access services and content wherever they go. While this may sound elaborate for an African network, the plan has been in place for a long time, says Cothill – it’s just that the technology had to catch up.
Consumers can only receive what is offered by an operator; it is a major dilemma for service providers who have access to high-speed bandwidth from a cable landing, but no way of delivering this to the end user. The Horn of Africa has the bandwidth at its shores, but consumers do not receive the value.
“The first problem you need to solve is supply and demand”, says Bluwan’s Shayan Sanyal. “If you can multiply the amount of traffic generated inland, this creates an incentive for submarine backbone providers to reduce their prices and hit target volumes – it’s almost a cyclical prospect. Introducing innovative services creates more demand on the supply side of the backbone, which reduces the price.”
Creating demand is more of an issue in underserved markets such as Africa; operators face a different set of problems in high-subscriber markets such as India. Spectrum is very limited for a number of reasons in India; the market is densely populated and there is strong competition among operators, but the monsoon rains are the most significant factor as they render higher frequencies unusable. Operators are therefore obliged to use frequencies that are unaffected by heavy rain, meaning that there is a very limited range available.
Delivering large amounts of capacity over a single spectrum channel is highly desirable in these markets, and microwave radio equipment is increasingly able to provide this. With the advent of LTE, 1Gb base stations are becoming increasingly common. While pushing 1Gb into a single channel makes broadband more accessible to emerging markets, backhauling becomes a pressing concern.
One solution to this is ‘fronthaul’, which involves connecting a centrally-located base station to a radio via cloud architecture. As it is typically used as an alternative to fibre it requires radios that can offer 1Gb – these essentially function as small cells. According to Ran Avital of wireless backhaul specialist Ceragon, this type of arrangement will become increasingly common in emerging markets.
“Almost everything that can be done with fibre can now be done with radio. We tested fronthauling in Nigeria, where the fibre used to connect radio units was cut every day. Small cells require a wireless network, but they are the only way to move forward in emerging markets”, he says.
A lot needs to happen for mobile operators to return to profitability, and the most fundamental changes will be in the ways that networks are built, says Avital. Whether in emerging or developed markets, there will be new business models based on infrastructure sharing, cloud architectures and small cells. Small cells allow the same spectrum to be used more, but present more opportunities for interference, while cloud environments allow spectrum resources to be held in one location through virtualisation, and this means they can be better managed.
Economic slowdown will always provoke change, and operators have to adapt to new over-the-top services such as What’sApp and Viber which have an adverse effect on their roaming and SMS revenues. A major change to the way networks are deployed and operated is the sharing model, where telecom sites play host to multiple operators, requiring at least 1Gb of bandwidth. Similarly, cloud architectures need a lot of bandwidth to function, and backhauling small cells requires that the spectrum be re-used more times, as there are more sites.
Given the amount of options that are available to operators to provide bandwidth, it is unlikely that one solution will emerge as dominant. Therefore, a holistic approach to heterogeneous networks is essential – solution providers must allow network operators to execute on their vision.
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