In South Africa, as in many emerging markets, wireless backhaul has long been a proverbial bottleneck to network growth. Due to cost and logistics, fiber optic technology remains out of reach as a practical solution for most aggregation scenarios, save for urban applications where population density and shorter routes can justify the exorbitance.
Now with the advent of higher speed, higher throughput mobile phones and tablet PCs, higher-order networking technologies are being pressed into service. Standard microwave radio, while cost efficient and effective for crossing far-flung forests, monumental mountains and desiccated deserts with traditional payload such as voice calls and moderate data rate applications, was not designed for the connectivity and capacity requirements of Layer 3 services. Thus, the bottleneck has grown still narrower. Even to the point where standard microwave radio might be hitting its upper threshold for serving mobile broadband.
Technical marketing manager, Siphiwe Nelwamondo, recently sat down with Engineering News, to discuss these issues and the present and future of microwave radio backhaul in South Africa and across the continent. In addition, he delved into how microwave networking is bridging the radio-IP gap for Layer 3 services by running IP/MPLS protocols on converged microwave routers.
As more and more mobile services get pushed out to the edge of the access network, the imperative for Layer 3 will only grow. Even as 3.5G and 4G mobile users who depend on full-IP increase in number, a majority of second- and third-generation subscribers will continue to rely on circuit-based technology. Not to worry, Nelwamondo covers how TDM telephony will be supported in a converged microwave and IP environment.
The full article goes on to discuss how mobile operators will strategize providing enterprise services from the cellular base station with microwave networking, virtual routers and more.
A growing telecommunications trend in South Africa and other emerging markets across the African continent is the move to cell tower sharing. There are many reasons for this, but the need to reduce capital expenditure (capex) on towers and other infrastructure and retarget spending toward network development, customer acquisition and retention and need to accommodate growing mobile data traffic levels have forced the issue.
The trend toward independent ownership of telecommunications infrastructure such as tower sites, with leasing arrangements for multiple operators on each tower, closely mirrors moves in mature telecommunications markets around the globe, including the U.S. and Europe, as well as other big emerging markets such as India and the Middle East.
Tower sharing prevalent
While there is some reluctance by industry incumbents to offload tower infrastructure because they fear losing market share and network coverage, the tower-sharing model is still becoming more prevalent. This is particularly evident in markets where there are new players trying to penetrate the market, as well as in countries where coverage in rural, sparsely populated areas is needed to drive growth. Other important factors, such as the rising cost of power in South Africa, or unreliable power delivery in other parts of the continent have also helped to drive this trend.
Thus, the adoption of this model has gained significant momentum in Africa since 2008, with major mobile operators in Ghana, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda striking deals to offload existing infrastructure to independent companies. These independent “tower operators” handle the operation and management of these towers, leasing space back on the towers to multiple network operators. This helps to reduce operating costs, improve efficiency and potentially boost an operator’s network coverage significantly and rapidly.
Smaller equipment requirements
To accommodate multiple network operators on a tower and cell site, smaller antennas are preferred, with additional requirements for smaller indoor equipment that draw less power. This configuration helps to decrease power consumption and cooling requirements resulting in more efficient use of diesel generators during times of power failure. However, having smaller antennas affects transmission power, capacity and efficiency. As such, mobile operators are turning to on-site solutions that offer all these benefits, but do not compromise on quality of service, capacity or data transmission speeds.
This also extends to the backhaul network, which often poses the most significant challenge for mobile network operators, especially as mobile networks continue to evolve from 2G and 3G to LTE. For example, as mobile networks continue to evolve, backhaul network architectures will need to change from simple point-to-point to more complex ring-based architectures. Operators that choose to share infrastructure will need on-site equipment that is capable of accommodating these changes, while still offering optimal transmit speeds and reduced operational costs.
Traditionally, most network operators also used optical fiber for their high-capacity fixed line core/trunking networks. However, as tower sharing becomes more prominent fewer operators are willing to spend the capital required to enable fixed-line backhaul from shared sites due to the associated costs. Therefore, more operators are turning to wireless backhaul as a suitable solution to transport data between the cell site and the core transport telephone network.
More capacity needed
As users demand more capacity on the access portion of the network, the core/trunking network also needs to sufficient capacity to be able to transport the aggregated traffic from all these sites. Many operators have turned to high-capacity trunking microwave systems to provide the required high capacity. These high-capacity trunking microwave systems have traditionally been installed indoors, usually in a standalone rack. They were also installed in a way that radio signal strength diminished significantly before reaching the antenna at the top of the tower, ,necessitating a bigger antenna to compensate. These all-indoor configurations also required big shelters and costly air conditioning.
Developing new technologies
In an effort to improve the efficiencies of mobile backhaul to meet modern demands, tower operators and their solution providers are reconfiguring these shared sites, and new technologies are being developed to solve these challenges.
For example, split-mount trunking solutions allow for up to four radio channels on a single microwave antenna, and lower costs associated with deploying and operating ultra-high capacity microwave links for increased capacity. Smaller and lighter antenna solutions can also be lifted and installed higher on towers more easily, which helps to decrease tower space and loading requirements, making these solutions less prone to wind damage. Moving radios from the shelter to the tower, next to the antenna, further reduces deployment and operational costs and simplifies antenna connections (e.g. eliminates inefficient, long waveguides; costly unreliable pressurization/dehydration systems). In these cases, smaller shelters or cabinets can be used, which decrease air-conditioning requirements even further.
However, regardless of how tower operators are able to reduce costs and improve efficiencies, the trend of this form of infrastructure sharing is set to continue, which will help to drive increased competitiveness in mobile markets across Africa. This will have a positive impact on the prices end-users pay for mobile data and voice services, and will help to accelerate the availability of connectivity across the continent.
Technical Marketing Manager, South Africa
LTE has been moving more and more to the forefront in mobile cellular networks around the world. Africa, and particularly the Republic of South Africa, is the latest hotbed of LTE rollouts, with the leading country operators of Vodacom, MTN and Cell C coming online since late in 2012. In conjunction with these LTE access rollouts, our technical marketing manager in the region, Mr. Siphiwe Nelwamondo, has been authoring a series of columns on enabling LTE in a leading regional technology media Internet site, ITWeb Africa.
Naturally, his focus has been on backhaul. In the first installment of his series, Mr. Nelwamondo looked closely at the backhaul requirements of LTE. Chief among these requirements are speed, Quality of Service (QoS) and capacity. He concluded that it is too early to close the book on the requisite parameters for supporting LTE backhaul. Part two of the features, he examined the basis on which microwave provides the technical underpinnings for LTE backhaul—especially as related to capacity. More spectrum, better spectral efficiency and more effective throughput were Mr. Nelwamondo’s subpoints to increasing capacity.
Having more spectrum for microwave backhaul is always nice, but it’s a finite resource and other RF-based equipment from satellites to garage door openers is in competition for it. Bettering spectral efficiency may be accomplished by traditional methods such as ACM and might be increased through unproven-in-microwave techniques like MIMO. Throughput improvement has wide claims from the plausible low single digit percentage increases to the more speculative of upping capacity by nearly half-again. Data compression and suppression are discussed. The truth is LTE, while data-intensive, probably will not require drastic measures for backhaul capacity until at least the next stage of LTE-Advanced.
If indeed capacity increases are necessary in the LTE backhaul, number three and the most current piece of Mr. Nelwamondo’s contains additional information. Nothing is better than having something bigger than normal or having many of the standard model. As the analogy applies to LTE microwave backhaul, bigger or wider channels will increase capacity, of course. A larger hose sprays more water. Or if you have two or three or more hoses pumping in parallel that will also support comparatively more water volume. The same is true of multiple microwave channels.
However, the most truly and cost effective capacity hiking approach is proper network planning. Mr. Nelwamondo points out that in Africa—more than some places—mobile operators are involved in transitioning from TDM planning to IP planning. While TDM planning was dependent on finding the peak traffic requirement per link, IP planning allows the flexibility to anticipate a normalized rate of traffic with contingencies to “borrow” capacity from elsewhere in a backhaul ring network that is not currently being utilized. Along with several other IP-related features, this makes determining the capacity a lot more of a gray area. Some operators solve this by simply “over-dimensioning” by providing too much bandwidth for the actual data throughput needed, but most cannot afford to do this.
The fourth and final entry in Mr. Nelwamondo’s series will appear soon on other LTE backhaul considerations of which you may not have thought. Sign up below to be notified when it is available.
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