Battling network congestion: fiber or wireless for Mobile Backhaul?

As network operators scramble to get ahead of traffic growth, the looming question continues to be, how?

With the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 came the beginning of a global mobile revolution. Since then, mobile computing has transformed every aspect of our lives with smartphones and tablets outselling laptop computers as the primary means of network communication. In fact, this growth will only accelerate in the coming years, as the next wave of mobilization will create even more data from enterprise mobility, wearable computing and the Internet of Things (IoT).

At the epicenter of our mobile-first society is a network infrastructure that cannot support its growth. Surging data traffic, coupled with user demand for fast, reliable service, is proving to be a complex challenge for network operators. Creating a sustainable network will be no easy feat – significant investment, long term planning and innovative technologies and approaches will all be required.

According to recent forecasts from Cisco's Visual Networking Index, nearly five billion users and as many as 10 billion additional IoT and Machine-to-Machine (M2M) devices may be connected by 2018. While this number of devices would represent an increase of 25-30 percent in the next several years, the amount of data could be 10 times higher than present, the report says, tracking the volume of data on the network in 2013 at 1.5 exabytes per month. One exabyte is equal to one billion gigabytes.

As network operators scramble to get ahead of traffic growth, the looming question continues to be, how? To no surprise, a subsequent debate has emerged among providers who are now looking closely at both fiber-based and wireless technologies as solutions to data traffic and network congestion, and specifically, to mobile backhaul.

Fiber: the current fix

In North America, fiber is the preferred transport technology and it’s widely used. Fiber offers the best combination of high capacity and high reliability, and it can be deployed over very long distances. For that reason, fiber is the preferred technology for transporting data between cell towers, to homes, buildings, even across continents and oceans.

However, fiber’s main drawback is that it is expensive to lease or install, and it is not always practical or even feasible to install where it doesn’t already exist. Trenching new fiber is disruptive and time-consuming, and in some cases, obtaining permits or the right-of-way for trenching fiber can be problematic or even impossible. Thus, carriers are looking for alternatives to fiber in certain situations.

Wireless: the competitor

Wireless solutions such as microwave and millimeter wave are gaining ground in the market due to their flexibility and lower costs. Wireless technologies are also often relatively quick to deploy compared to fiber.

However, none of the traditional wireless technologies are equipped to undertake the demands of current and future networks. This is particularly true for microwave, the most widely used wireless transport technology. Despite the improvements in the microwave technologies for supporting higher capacity, it still falls significantly short of the multi gigabit bandwidth demands of the next generation backhaul networks. Millimeter wave, on the other hand, is capable of higher capacity than microwave, but is limited by distance to just a few kilometers. In addition, millimeter wave technology doesn’t work in all weather conditions, most notably rain, rendering it useless many days of the year.

Composite Optical-RF: the game changer

While both fiber and traditional wireless technologies fail to satisfy all of the requirements needed from networks, a new technology called Composite Optical-RF has emerged on the scene. This technology can deliver fiber-like performance in a wireless solution to meet the backhaul data transport needs of network operators. This has been no easy feat, as many companies have attempted to bridge these two technologies into a cutting-edge solution.

What makes Composite Optical-RF a potential industry game changer is that it is the first to overcome the elusive triangle for wireless data transport – simultaneous high bandwidth and high reliability over long distances. Composite Optical-RF technology achieves these enviable fiber characteristics through the use of Advanced Wavelength Diversity (AWD), a technology that enables delivery of simultaneous redundant data over the diverse physical mediums of optical and millimeter wave radio. The two resulting wireless data transmission signals are then composited at the byte level to generate an error-free wireless signal that can withstand fog, rain, high winds, snow, and other extreme weather.

The future of the networks

Wireless communications technologies are opening up opportunities to bring unserved segments of society into the digital age, particularly in emerging markets and remote, hard-to-reach areas of the world. Both Google’s Project Loon and Facebook’s Connectivity Lab are working to give access to these segments of society, and they are taking innovative approaches to provide access to everyone via drones or balloons beaming broadband mobile signals where wired or wireless infrastructures currently do not exist.

While the idea of drones sending signals to remote outposts captures the imagination, there are more practical approaches. One of the primary advantages of wireless data transport technologies is that high bandwidth, high availability links can be located just about anywhere and at a much lower total cost than fiber. This opens up many new possibilities to bring mobile service or even broadband access to the unserved or underserved segments of the population, without trenching new fiber or paying exorbitant leased line fees, and without having to send drones into the sky (and solve the complex challenge of establishing a high bandwidth links with the drones and ground stations).

Though fiber will remain the foundation of our communications infrastructure for quite some time, new wireless technologies provide an important and needed alternative in those situations where fiber is not a practical solution. The ability to function without the constraints of fiber or conventional wireless technologies truly makes Wireless Fiber a viable solution to our growing network needs.

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About the Author

Amit Khetawat is director of products at AOptix. In this role he is responsible for the strategy and management of the company’s wireless communication products.

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