Backhaul issues may slam small-cell plans

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Backhaul issues are threatening to curtail small-cell deployment, according to a study from research firm iGR.

Wireless operators are increasingly turning to small-cell architectures to improve capacity and coverage on their networks and reduce networks costs. However, this momentum could be reined back if operators cannot find suitable fiber or microwave backhaul links to serve their small cells.

"One of the major challenges with deployment of small-cell architectures is how to provide backhaul to the cell. While fiber is the ideal solution, that is not always physically possible with small cells and so microwave is being seen as an ideal alternative," said Iain Gillott, iGR president and founder.

Microwave is considered scalable, cost-effective and possibly a better alternative to both fiber and T1s, depending upon geography, said iGR. The company's new study predicts demand for microwave backhaul will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 68 percent from 2011 to 2016.

Yet Gillott said major operators are nonetheless wary of relying upon microwave-based backhaul for small cells. "These concerns are significant enough that they could significantly slow--or even stop--the deployment of small cell architectures," he said.

A host of vendors are offering what iGR describes as "a mind-boggling suite of diverse microwave and millimeter wave solutions" and will battle one another for survival and market share over the next year to 18 months. "The number of new vendors also raises concerns of the mobile operators, many of whom are questioning the validity of some of the marketing claims. A general concern is that some of the new vendors are over-hyping claims for their product's performance," said iGR.

Until mobile operators' concerns about microwave are assuaged, backhaul is likely to be a significant roadblock on the road to small cell deployment, said iGR.

Other research firms have also been examining the need for backhaul to serve small-cell architectures. Infonetics Research recently stated that microwave is expected to become established as the primary backhaul solution for outdoor small cells. Infonetics said the global mobile backhaul equipment market grew 8 percent to $7.4 billion in 2011, following a 10 percent increase the previous year. The firm is predicting a cumulative $39 billion will be spent on mobile backhaul equipment over the five years from 2012 to 2016.

For more:
- see this iGR release

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