|African microwave backhaul for fast track to 3G mobile internet service
|Cambridge Broadband Networks
Graham is the CEO of Cambridge Broadband Networks and has a wealth of experience in managing global businesses for high technology products and processes. His strength is in growing and developing high performance management teams to apply new innovation and technology while achieving operational excellence.
Previous positions include COO Group Lotus Plc, and CEO of Keronite.
Graham Peel holds a BSc Hons in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Reading.
African operators are expecting to see a sharp rise in traffic volumes as a result of the growing use of mobile internet. The legacy copper based system is not adequate, but new fibre cabling is costly. In addition, it is difficult to protect cable in the ground from theft in Africa. Microwave backhaul is a good alternative that is not as disruptive or vulnerable, and is faster to install. The Point-to-Multi-Point (PMP) microwave backhaul solution is far superior to the Point-to-Point solution. PMP enables sharing spectrum between cell sites dynamically, thus reducing both CAPEX and OPEX.
Consumer uptake of mobile internet connected devices across the African continent is increasing. Recent figures released by On Demand Research have revealed that in Africa today, 50 percent of all internet users, which in total accounts for 10.9 percent of the total population, access the web via a mobile device. In addition, there have been clear signs that optimism amongst mobile operators and consumer electronics manufacturers is growing. Last year Samsung launched its Galaxy Tablet in Africa ahead of the European launch, and Orange Senegal launched the iPad as part of its offering. Due to the lack of fixed line infrastructure across the continent, what little access to broadband there is comes at a high usage cost. For many Africans, accessing the internet via a mobile device is their first experience of the web. Mobile operators therefore have an opportunity to capitalise on the demand for mobile internet in the continent, as well as the socio-economic, business and revenue opportunities. However, in order to migrate to 3G networks operators have key issues to address to extend both coverage and capacity in urbanised areas.
Whilst it is important not to dispel the optimism, it is necessary to reflect on the current position African operators are in. The current mobile infrastructure deployed across the continent will not be able to support the growing consumer demand for high-speed mobile broadband. For the most part, African operators are working with 2.5G networks which, in urban environments, are being backhauled by copper. Whilst copper may have been acceptable for voice and SMS traffic, 3G mobile broadband traffic is ‘lumpy’ and unpredictable. With inefficiencies inherent in copper, there is not a sufficient amount of capacity to cope with growing demand. As Afrique Avenir recently estimated, by 2015 there will be over 265 million mobile broadband subscriptions across the African continent, therefore capacity can become problematic.
With this estimated growth and the migration process from 2.5G to 3G networks in sight, it comes as no surprise that a new climate of competition is entering the African mobile market as operators are recognising the potential within Africa. Currently there is a low penetration rate for mobile internet in Africa. According to the International Telecoms Union statistics it stands at 3.6 percent mobile broadband subscriptions per 100 people for 2010, compared with 46.3 percent per 100 people in Europe. Despite that, operators are seeing a great potential for the continent. Most recently Bharti Airtel, India’s largest mobile phone operator, acquired Zain Africa in a deal that has seen its total customer base expand as it enters into the African telecoms market. Responding to the acquisition, Sunil Bharti Mittal, chairman and managing director of Bharti Airtel, commented that: “With this acquisition, Bharti Airtel will be transformed into a truly global telecom company with operations across 18 countries fulfilling our vision of building a world-class multinational.”
Although the migration from 2.5G to 3G networks will be an unavoidably complex process, African operators can learn from the experience in Europe. For many, European operators were caught off guard with the popularity of mobile broadband and smartphone devices, catapulting data volume beyond manageable levels and creating the ‘capacity crunch’. This has led to operators needing to spend money on upgrading their 3G networks with a patchwork of different technologies. For instance, O2 and 3 both had to spend hundreds of millions throughout 2010 to upgrade their networks quickly in order to meet consumer demand. In addition, Vodafone introduced femtocells to manage the 3G data traffic generated within its subscriber’s homes. Learning from this two-part process, African operators should look not only to expand their networks to meet current consumer data demand, but also to incorporate ‘future-proof’ technologies that will equip them with sufficient capacity to meet demands for years to come.
There are several solutions available to operators in order to do this, some being arguably more viable than others. The copper based legacy system within African cities does not provide enough capacity to cope with growing consumer demands for mobile internet. Fibre is another fixed line solution, and one that offers almost infinite capacity and speed. However, both are disruptive to deploy, requiring huge trenches to be excavated. In addition to the disruption, there is also the fundamental issue of theft for both copper and fibre solutions within Africa. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for operators to ensure the complete safety and security of these fibre cables and copper pipes once laid. With this in mind, solutions that can be easily secured and deployed will clearly become a key priority for operators.
As well as security threats, spectrum is also problematic in Africa. The South African regulator released new clauses and guidelines for its upcoming spectrum auction that limits the amount of spectrum multinational operators can buy. Details as to which bands will be directly affected are not clear and currently, no licences have been issued for the 28GHz spectrum. These regulations could affect the licence for high capacity backhaul spectrum that multinational operators can purchase. This means that the need for mobile operators to make effective use of spectrum is ever-present.
Spectrum for point-to-point (PTP) microwave backhaul network is always provisioned at its peak in order to cope with increases in data traffic loads. This however, is not an efficient way to use spectrum and once spectrum is assigned between links, this cannot be changed or reallocated. An alternative wireless solution is offered by point-to-multipoint (PMP) microwave backhaul in which spectrum and capacity are shared amongst cell sites. This sharing is dictated by demand, therefore if an increased amount of data activity occurs within one area, capacity can be reallocated to cope with this increase, and reduced once the heightened activity has subsided.
Besides serving spectrum issues, PMP microwave backhaul also offers African operators a cost efficient way of provisioning their networks for the influx of mobile connected devices. The one-to-many nature of PMP reduces the overall number of radio links required, when compared to PTP, by up to a half. This means that backhaul networks can be deployed in a matter of hours rather than days, and at half the cost of the alternatives. Overall, the deployment of a PMP solution reduces CAPEX by 50 percent when compared to PTP and the cost of operating and maintaining a PMP solution is much lower, reducing the OPEX too.
Whichever option an African operator may wish to choose when backhauling their network, the benefits of extending access to the internet via mobile devices within Africa are plentiful. Across the developed world, mobile internet is often regarded a commonplace feature of day-to-day life, but whereas the availability of news and information is rarely limited to a mobile device, for many Africans this is an essential tool.
Advancements in mobile network infrastructure will provide a direct opportunity for new revenue generation amongst operators, device manufacturers, content providers and those companies involved in the installation of 3G networks. Not only will it encourage economic growth within the continent, this evolution will also provided numerous socio-economic benefits to consumers who will be able to access health, weather and local and global news in a convenient and cost-efficient manner. This knowledge will open up Africa to the global market allowing individuals and businesses to compare the costs that countries within other continents attach to particular goods, therefore allowing them to set prices and be competitive within that specific market sector.
In essence, the principal concern for African operators is to make investments in technologies that are cost-efficient, timely to deploy, efficiently managed and provide scalability for network expansion. Arguably African operators today are facing similar challenges to those experienced within Europe during the 3G migration process, but, by using hindsight gained from within Europe, many of these African operators have an opportunity to provision their networks for the current and future data demands as well as providing an easy migration path to future network standards (LTE).