The Evolution of Backhaul

by Clayton Vallabhan | April 4th, 2016

shutterstock_99991568-smallThe rise of data over mobile has spurred the adoption of higher communications standards such as 4G/LTE. Even though these standards have not yet been implemented everywhere, they will soon enter new markets, and standards with even higher capacity like 5G and beyond will follow. Moreover, advances in HTS have slashed bandwidth costs by up to 70%, creating a cost-effective alternative for delivering broadband while reducing OPEX.

Semir Hassanaly, Market Director for Cellular Backhaul and Trunking at Newtec, says that backhaul through satellite has traditionally expanded in rural and remote areas in emerging markets, where the availability of devices and affordability of cellular communications are important limiting factors.

However, the growth of data spurred by the availability of 3G and 4G technologies, newer smartphones and the explosion of social networking are creating significant traction in those regions as well. The enhanced user experience possible with 4G over satellite is no stranger to this shift. Consequently, the landscape for mobile backhaul through satellite is changing significantly, with technology helping to provide affordable, quality mobile data services.

The increase in mobile data traffic is set to continue, with the Middle East and Africa leading growth. According to Cisco, the MEA region will have the strongest mobile data traffic growth of any region, with 72% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) through 2019.

“The growing data traffic has led to increasing demand for higher transmission efficiencies. When advancements in satellite technology such as high-throughput satellites (HTS) are factored in, it is clear that the way mobile operators assess the viability of satellite as an option for cellular backhaul has been completely turned on its head. Satellite-facilitated cellular backhaul, with the aid of advancements in satellite technology such as HTS, is now one of the most cost-efficient options available to mobile operators,” says Hussein Oteifa, GM, Commercial at SES Middle East.
Oscar Garcia, Senior Vice President, Business Marketing at Etisalat UAE, says that as an incumbent telco operator, Etisalat has to keep up with local technology trends. Many customers who were just using conventional GSM voice services and 2G services for SCADA-type applications are now demanding 3G and 4G services, due to an increase in bandwidth demand on the applications.

“We specifically see a strong demand coming from the oil and gas vertical in the region, where OPCOs are moving their services to clouds and automated solutions. Offshore sites which are already covered by mobile voice services are now demanding high throughput data services on mobile, extended through the same channels.

“We constantly have to evolve to keep up with customer demand in the market, and to do that we are constantly upgrading our platforms and looking at new compression techniques that can be introduced over satellite links. We are also looking at new vendors and technology that is available in the market that could help us use bandwidth more efficiently, and reduce the overall TCO for our customers. On top of this, we have to make our offering competitive, to ensure that the customer is not breaking the bank to subscribe to essential services,” explains Garcia.

Backhaul services traditionally have been used primarily by fixed and wireless telecoms and ISPs, as a readily available means to connect remote sites at the edge of a network to a base station, to provide national network connectivity, and as backup for a terrestrial network.

The largest markets for cellular backhaul are developing regions in Asia, Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. Governments in Oman and Egypt are also accelerating the national rollout of terrestrial networks in order to fulfil universal service obligations. Mobile operators are turning to satellite operators to ensure that they provide 100% coverage over the country, especially over remote and inaccessible parts of these countries.

Mobile network operators (MNOs) are the largest customers of backhaul capacity in Latin American markets, as they procure capacity directly from satellite operators, says Oteifa. However, in the Middle East and Africa, VSAT service providers and third-party technology providers are the largest customer segment, as MNOs often outsource mobile tower management.

Jean-Philippe Gillet, VP, EMEA Sales at Intelsat, thinks the introduction of HTS will be a major game changer in the backhaul market; costs for bandwidth will fall and performance will be enhanced.

“Intelsat EpicNG has the potential to significantly reduce the cost per bit for our customers. For example, advances in ground equipment that we are driving means base stations that can access the improved performance delivered by Intelsat EpicNG can be set up more quickly and easily. And by cutting the amount of power required to operate these stations, including developing solar-powered options, reliability will increase while cost will be reduced. These improvements mean wireless network providers can focus investment dollars on developing new services and applications rather than on their network.”

Garcia agrees, saying HTS will have a huge impact on the overall pricing to the end user, and that it is only a proportion of the overall cost of the conventional band for the satellite space segment.

“There are two things we have to consider as an operator. One is the investment in updating our back-end platforms to support HTS. This may not require upgrading our antenna arrays and the uplink chain. However, the actual platforms that will be utilised to extend HTS services will be required at our teleports, and there is a huge investment that would go into that area. Etisalat is already part of certain initiatives by leading vendors where we have already deployed these test platforms at our teleport, and we are already testing the platforms with our vendors to ensure once HTS coverage is available over the region, we will be ready to extend these services.

“In parallel, we have to ensure that there is a positive commercial impact for our customers in terms of Etisalat offering a better VSAT service at cheaper pricing and reducing the overall TCO for our customers,” adds Garcia.
Oteifa of SES says that for mobile operators looking to grow their subscriber base in either sparsely populated rural areas or geographically challenging terrain, satellite offers the most attractive solution. HTS is not only transforming the business of cellular backhaul, but the increase in bandwidth capacity is lowering the cost of transmission dramatically, allowing customers to not only enjoy cost savings but also explore innovative new business opportunities.

“In order to fully optimise the increased bandwidth brought about by HTS, we recently launched SES Plus, our new satellite data network. Our first Plus product, Enterprise+ Broadband, was launched across five markets in Africa in November 2015. The plug-and-play offering allows service providers to tap into our HTS capacity while lowering their CAPEX investment. With up to 1Gbps connectivity and 99.5% service availability, Enterprise+ is a competitively priced flexible connectivity platform with pay-as-you-go options to ensure the service can go live quickly. We are also looking at rolling out Plus products across other market segments such as aeronautical, maritime and government in the near future,” says Oteifa.

There are many challenges in backhaul. The world of mobile has always been fast evolving, with huge investments at stake. Hassanaly explains that competition is fierce, with often more than four mobile operators fighting for the same markets. Profitability is hence challenged. Many mobile operators have looked into outsourcing their operations and selling their towers in order to focus on their core business, which is selling voice and data plans.
Manufacturers have to be creative in proposing financing and revenue sharing options, in order to win the business and allow mobile operators to upgrade their infrastructure so as to cope with increasing subscriber needs. There is therefore a big impact on satellite backhaul: it has to be extremely efficient in order to save bandwidth through spectral efficiency and dynamic bandwidth features, preserve quality of service, and provide quality of experience in order to alleviate the inherent satellite delay.

Gillet says: “The main challenge is that wireless network operators are in a constrained OPEX and CAPEX environment and delaying or reducing the scope of planned network expansion projects. But they are still seeking ways to serve their end users. They need infrastructure options that don’t result in large CAPEX commitments today – or in 10 years as demand grows. Satellite operators offering a closed solution in which they dictate the hardware that must be used are at a disadvantage. Improved efficiency, backwards compatibility and open architecture gives wireless network operators more choice as they evolve their infrastructure, increasing ARPU while also having the ability to address changes in demand.”

Innovations being made today in orbit and on the ground are addressing these challenges. HTS solutions will meet the needs of wireless network operators, and Intelsat EpicNG is unique due to an architecture that enables the incorporation of HTS into operations seamlessly without having to change equipment. Intelsat EpicNG also features a digital payload that allows connectivity in any bandwidth increment and from any beam to any beam.

“For customers integrating HTS, this means uplinks and downlinks can be connected regardless of location within the footprint. For a wireless network operator with an established, successful C-band business, they can integrate high-powered Ku-band spot beams from the existing C-band hub into the network, to maintain service quality for customers operating in areas of high demand. Intelsat 33E, which will cover the EMEA region, is scheduled for launch in Q3 of 2016, and because Intelsat EpicNG is backward compatible, customers can start rolling out upgrades now,” concludes Gillet.

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