LTE backhaul considerations

Factors other than the technological and technical come into play with LTE deployment.

Siphiwe Nelwamondo
By Siphiwe Nelwamondo, technical marketing manager with Aviat Networks.
Johannesburg, 24 Jul 2013

Long-term evolution (LTE) is gathering momentum with major mobile operators across Africa. In my earlier "Enabling LTE" Industry Insight, I looked at the technological possibilities of LTE and mobile backhaul technical requirements for making them reality across Africa.

However, factors other than the technological and technical come into play when it comes to LTE deployment and backhaul. For example, expertise in backhaul construction presents as much of an obstacle to LTE deployment as throughput or capacity.

Expert construction is important, because whichever operator deploys LTE first will have market position for claiming it has highest bandwidth. As an analogy, consider the effort required to prepare South Africa for the World Cup. In less than six years, five world-class stadiums were built from scratch and five others brought up to world-class level. Many other infrastructure improvements were also required. Similarly, construction is an obstacle to LTE deployment in Africa, considering that many wireless contractors do not have the skills to install microwave.

Increasing LTE roll-outs

In SA and other parts of Africa, LTE roll-outs are increasing this year, and planned roll-outs are on the rise for next year. As the continent accelerates into LTE, it will undergo a rapid transition from TDM backhaul to IP/Ethernet backhaul. As recently as a few years ago, 99% of the microwave backhaul for African mobile operators was TDM-based.

However, over the next several years, it is anticipated that LTE and optimised 3G mobile broadband will become mainstream in Africa. Virtually 100% of the microwave backhaul supporting these mobile broadband networks will have IP/Ethernet capability - some will be full IP networks, and some will be moving up the IP evolutionary ladder with support from hybrid microwave serving IP and TDM traffic from one platform.

With LTE demand growing, operators are challenged to keep up, and it only heightens the urgency to deploy as quickly as possible. In turn, operators expect faster delivery from vendors. They are expecting the right solution - a future-proof solution. The solution cannot just be an IP solution or a microwave solution. Operators need a solution that combines the two, yet offers a unified solution transcending IP and microwave to provide full microwave networking. It must be backed by a unique set of skills for proper implementation.

Moving to microwave

I recommend the upskilling of a new breed of microwave engineer, and existing engineers who are willing to adapt and learn IP. IP expertise will be essential for microwave networking, which itself needs to be reliable and flexible.

While some mobile operators conduct their own quality of experience and LTE and backhaul testing in-house to validate network integrity, others will rely on their vendors to identify any gear-related issues. In the microwave-networking era, hardware and software solutions will have to prove highly reliable in LTE backhaul. During the transition to full IP backhaul, quality plug-and-play hybrid capability will be essential. African operators should seek solutions that have already been proven for LTE backhaul, solutions capable of leveraging tested interoperability with other wireless products to simplify deployment.

Mobile operators will also need fastest possible time to market while transitioning to LTE. With proper network planning, a microwave backhaul provider upgrading an operator to LTE should be able to turn a wireless site in two days in a best-case scenario, re-using installed antennas, if possible. In a worst-case scenario, an experienced IP microwave provider should turn a full site install in less than a week.

Lightning-fast LTE backhaul

LTE operators are under tremendous pressure to roll-out new LTE services to maintain competitive advantage, through higher bandwidth and better coverage across large markets, but from a limited base. Faster time-to-market is becoming another competitive advantage. The mobile operator offering broad LTE availability before its rivals is going to win the market.

IP expertise will be essential for microwave networking, which itself needs to be reliable and flexible.

To get LTE to market as quickly as possible, an optimised microwave backhaul will be mandatory. Only vendors who have gained experience rolling out LTE services in other markets, since they ramped worldwide over the last 18 months, should be considered. Such vendors will have learned what it takes to accelerate deployment without sacrificing quality: the goal is speed with quality.

Having the right personnel, the right preparation and the right product is crucial to a successful, speedy roll-out:

* The right personnel - LTE requires a microwave engineer with strong IP/networking skills. Fewer people in the field and fewer calls to the support centre results in lower costs and faster deployment!
* The right preparation - planning, configuration and testing are essential. Deployment times can be greatly reduced by testing and configuration of not only the operator's equipment, but of the gear to which it connects. For example, most current LTE backhaul deployment challenges result from poor IP engineering (eg, IP address assignments not resolved prior to installation).
* The right products - reliable plug-and-play solutions must have been rigorously tested by the operator, so both the operator and the backhaul provider have confidence they'll perform as expected.

Properly observed, the "three Ps" of LTE backhaul deployment, supported by experts in IP and microwave - microwave networking - will result in a timely solution for African mobile operators. Many African mobile operators leapfrogged the legacy wired infrastructure of other continents. With microwave backhaul and the correct construction and IP expertise, their LTE networks can avoid the next-generation of 'wired' infrastructure, as well.