Large network vendors deliver confused small cell backhaul messages

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Major infrastructure vendors have taken a toolkit approach to small cell backhaul that blends a variety of approaches, but their shifting strategies are perplexing their operator customers, according to an advisory report from Current Analysis.

The wide variety in wireless backhaul approaches--such as sub-6 GHz, 60 GHz V Band and 70/80 GHz E band--is confusing enough. And major vendors' repeatedly shuffled backhaul strategies have "left operators with little insight into roadmaps or how to begin modeling small cell deployments," wrote report author Ed Gubbins, Current Analysis' senior analyst, mobile access infrastructure.

For example, Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC) long contended that it was investigating a mix of approaches to small cell backhaul but then rolled out an internally developed 60 GHz backhaul product at last year's Mobile World Congress. However, by year's end, Ericsson was touting an E-Band solution and had still had not publicly launched a 60 GHz product, said Gubbins.

Similarly, he said NEC began 2012 by pushing 60 GHz for small cell backhaul but in the latter part of the year was advocating a mix of technologies that included E band (70/80 GHz) and sub-6 GHz, which NEC does not yet offer.

Major RAN Vendors' Small-Cell Backhaul Offerings

Source: Current Analysis

Gubbins cited Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE:ALU) for being especially proactive on small cell backhaul and forging useful partnerships with companies such as Radwin, Sub 10 Systems and Bridgewave, which are aimed at achieving quick time to market. ZTE, on the other hand, has been relatively quiet. "Samsung is an outlier for not being in the backhaul business, and NSN [Nokia Siemens Networks] is another unique case--no longer in the backhaul business but with backhaul functionality embedded in (and linking together) the access points of its mesh-like Flexi Zone solution," said Gubbins.

Gubbins suggested a number of actions major vendors should take to be competitive in small cell backhaul. Ericsson, he said "should continue its single-vendor emphasis in heterogeneous networks by presenting small cells and backhaul together as one seamless solution." This could include a 60 GHz product, he added, predicting Ericsson will finally commercially release at this month's Mobile World Congress.

Since Samsung does not offer small cell backhaul solutions, it will want to point operators to independent backhaul specialists. Alcatel-Lucent, meanwhile, should promote its deployment planning and services offering, which should tie together its small cells and backhaul products.

Though NSN claims to offer a full range of solutions through its partner DragonWave, NSN has not clarified how it will employ the various products in that portfolio. In addition, NSN has positioned TD-LTE and Wi-Fi as backhaul options for Flexi Zone, but Gubbins said many operators would prefer to use TD-LTE spectrum for access capacity and are skeptical about using Wi-Fi for backhaul.

Huawei needs to get active in communicating its vision for employing the various technological approaches to small cell backhaul, while NEC "should use its expertise and proven track record in wireless backhaul (along with its proactive moves in small cells) to produce internally developed backhaul products optimized for small cell backhaul," said Gubbins.

The Current Analysis report also touched on whether or not small cells and backhaul should be integrated within the same box. NSN's Flexi Zone architecture, in which each node can use Wi-Fi backhaul individually, fits into this category. Further, Qualcomm must see a market for this approach, given its acquisition of DesignArt Networks, offers system-on-chip (SoC) and software products that enable the design of indoor and outdoor small cells and remote radio heads.

Gubbins predicted it will be difficult to obtain scale with true one-box solutions, but he said any approach or design that makes deployment easier and will be valuable.

For more:
- see this Current Analysis release

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