Satellite backhaul: the Fibre alternative

The term ‘cellular backhaul’ covers more now than it did two or three years ago, encompassing a far broader range of technologies  that have become more widespread, including internet services offered by digital devices as well as remote or maritime communications facilitated by small cells.

Fibre is often thought of as the go-to technology for backhauling, but it isn’t always an option – particularly in emerging regions such as Africa and Latin America, where there simply isn’t enough fibre in the ground. Markets that are undergoing extensive growth can often run into this problem, and it is in these situations that satellite backhaul becomes a financially viable alternative.

In areas that are lacking in fibre infrastructure, satellite backhaul has numerous advantages over competing technologies such as microwave, according to David Furstenburg of Novelsat, who points to the area of disaster relief as an example. Citing the 2011 Japanese tsunami, he notes that of the four active and four backup cables that connected Japan to the USA, six were rendered unusable following the disaster.

“There is no other system that will have the resilience of satellite, but there are two major challenges with the technology: cost and delay. These are the drawbacks, but there are a number of ways to overcome them”, says Furstenburg.

Across the satellite industry, Ka-band services are becoming increasingly common as they significantly lower the cost of bandwidth. In addition, the use of inclined orbits is becoming more widespread, particularly in emerging markets.

Satellites typically have a 15-year lifespan, and towards the end of this its orbit will become less stable; to use the service there must be a tracking mechanism from the antenna that follows the satellite so that the intensity of the signal doesn’t drop.

Satellites with inclined orbits typically command far lower prices than newer satellites; a trial conducted by Novelsat and SES found that it was possible to compete with reduced-cost fibre in Africa via a combination of a high-reliability modem and inclined orbit satellites. By adding in a capacity multiplier, it becomes possible to reduce prices from around $3000 a month to just $1000.

By reducing the costs of backhauling, it is possible to transfer the savings to the end user, and – particularly in emerging markets – this typically results in massive uptake. As soon as more people adopt the service, it starts a cycle of cost reduction.

“I believe that using the Ka-Band will drop prices dramatically”, says Furstenburg. “The only enabler that it will need to win rural internet customers is the data rate that those customers are demanding.”

The DVB-S2 satellite standard was widely believed to be so close to its physical limit that it could not be improved in a significant way; this resulted in the entire industry shifting its focus towards improved compression. Data rates are key, according to Furstenburg – providing reliable, fast internet to rural consumers will require around 1Gbps, which has not yet been achieved.

“At the end of the day, we’re a bunch of plumbers providing pipes”, he says. “What arrives through the pipe is down to the consumer. The major impact of the technology is to reduce the cost of ownership to the operator, thereby enabling lower cost services to the end user.”

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