Copper Backhaul

As data volumes grow exponentially operators are looking their backhaul infrastrucure with an ever greater sense of urgency.  

The mobile telecoms industry is in the throes of another generational change. As 3G networks are superseded by 4G, operators around the world are looking with an ever greater sense of urgency at their backhaul infrastructure. Whereas many in the industry have assumed that fibre and high-bandwidth microwave systems will be the only viable solutions, it is likely that copper – a resolutely 20th century technology – will provide a lasting solution to a 21st century challenge.

Providing backhaul to individual cells is becoming an ever-greater challenge for mobile operators (and indeed for the fixed operators who often supply them). Backhaul was already a challenging issue within the 3G world – 4G RAN deployments only serve to amplify that challenge. In an ideal world, the obvious way to provide backhaul for all mobile data networks is fibre. With the ability to provide virtually unlimited data throughput, fibre can readily provide all the capacity require. But the world is far from ideal, and fibre – though desirable – is difficult to justify financially and commercially.

Fibre is not only expensive to deploy, but also disruptive. It often requires substantial civil works, which typically cost many times more than the fibre itself.

More commonly, mobile operators lease fibre from a fixed operator. Where it is available, it solves the backhaul problem – albeit at a cost.  The key issue here is “where it is available”. Fibre penetration remains stubbornly low. Across the OECD group of countries, fibre broadband reaches just 15% of homes – suggesting that outside metro and urban centres, fibre is comparatively scarce.

Where topography allows, operators have relied heavily on microwave backhaul. Though high-bandwidth microwave solutions are increasingly capable, they are only a viable solution in settings where there is line of sight. This is often not the case in urban and suburban areas.


Copper bonding: the third way

Copper-based connectivity has been the mainstay of many backhaul solutions. However, in its most basic form – typically leased E1 / T1 lines offering symmetric 2.048 / 1.544 mbps – copper is well past its sell-by date. The provision of backhaul for 4G networks via E1 / T1 leased lines is unlikely to be practical or commercially sustainable.

But solutions now exist that make far more intelligent and flexible use of legacy copper infrastructure. Bonding is a technique whereby multiple twisted pairs of copper are reconfigured to become a single “fat pipe”. Genesis Technical Systems mBond solution can reliably provide over 150mbps downlink capacity over 1.5 kilometres, on copper which configured as E1 lines, was previously only capable of delivering 24mbps (12 pairs).

Why copper?

Copper is very widely available – especially in key suburban areas where data traffic volumes are growing rapidly. In many cases, copper is already the medium for cell backhaul provision, but legacy E1 / T1 services have proven an ineffective and expensive means of keeping up with demand. The business case for bonded copper is therefore very clear. There is no cost or disruption relating to civil works – the copper is already in the ground. There is no capex for fibre or new antennae – just an mBond rack-mountable unit at the cell and the local exchange.

No one is suggesting rolling new copper. Clearly the world has moved beyond that, and any new ducting being constructed is destined to house fibre. But in all those locations where copper already connects a cell, or is available to connect a cell, it makes sense to consider the use of bonded copper. Capable of delivering the same bandwidth as an OC-3 line (up to 1.5 km out), bonded copper can do the work of fibre, at a fraction of the cost – and can be installed in a tiny fraction of the time.

Make copper do the work of fibre

It’s not about either / or, but when. Clearly, fibre is the most capable fixed transmission technology for the very long term. But in the short term, fibre is too expensive for many cells – and more to the point, often simply not available. Bonded copper solutions like those of Genesis Technical Systems can allow operators to delay investment in fibre for a decade at least: essentially for as long as the copper lines are serviceable and functioning – without any performance compromise.

Capable of delivering fibre-like throughput, bonded copper solutions can provide enough capacity to more than accommodate data traffic volume growth – especially in suburban areas where growth is strongest, and copper readily available. It is in these very same suburban areas that the business case for fibre backhaul is at its weakest. Conversely, re-use of existing copper, with a bonding solution, is amongst the least expensive backhaul options available. 


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