Escaping the backhaul trap

The drive for mobility, along with the introduction of the smart phone and its ever-growing variety of free and paid applications, is driving the steady growth of cellular revenues globally. These drivers, however, represent a financial risk to mobile operators who are in the process of choosing strategies to transition to next generation technology to support exponential growth in bandwidth demand.

What's more, uncertainty about the current global economic situation has caused operators to hold back on capex investment. This has limited their ability to replace legacy equipment, leaving them with increasing opex. Since most capex usually is allocated to support new services, a strategy to transform the network and its backhaul is required.

Backhaul migration challenges

Let's focus on the main issues in existing infrastructure. The first problem is bandwidth. In most cases, operators have designed their network infrastructure for 3G voice. Exploding demand for data services, however, is causing these operators to struggle to keep up with the bandwidth requirements.

The second problem is topology and is related to the problem of bandwidth. Network topology, although designed to sustain growth, was not architected to grow exponentially to meet today's bandwidth demands. Ring topology, which is very common, requires endless upgrades as well as interface changes in the Radio Access Network (RAN), or worse, double the investment, both at the RAN edges and at the network core.

The third, more surprising problem is inefficient opex allocation. Operators aim to allocate as little opex as possible to non-revenue generating components. But as legacy equipment ages, it is more likely to require more opex allocation for maintenance and repair.

There are, of course, other problems related to interoperability, footprint and so on. But these important problems have a lesser effect on network transformation and can be mitigated more efficiently.

In the face of all these challenges, operators still have no choice but to transition to next generation technologies. To add another layer of complexity, during the transition, operators also need to maintain the same levels of service quality and availability, or else risk losing customers. From the operator's perspective, transition calls for an interim period where the legacy network continues running while the new one is built, waiting to be activated. The transition may not be so easy - consider databases, network addresses and the process itself. Yet, it must be as smooth as possible so that it does not jeopardize the existing customer base.

Along with all this comes the additional challenge of rolling out new revenue-generating services. These new services may be built on both platforms - the legacy as well as the new - and should function in the same manor.

Strategy is first and foremost about investment. We have seen operators driven to invest in backhaul in a way we refer to as the 'forklift method' where they replace equipment with a new chassis every two to three years. It may seem that the increased capex investment should reduce opex. However, the need for increased training and spares actually tilts the balance back to higher opex levels. As more and more operators fall into this trap, they are less likely to buy equipment to meet short-term needs only.

Selecting the right platform, one that can scale up as needed, is key. Vendors with scalable platforms will find themselves working with satisfied customers for years. When an operator can use the same chassis from year to year, upgrading from time to time, they find it easier and more financially amenable to meet the ever-growing demand for bandwidth, protocols and new applications.

In addition to selecting the right platform, operators need to develop the right migration plan. The right plan includes preparing not only engineering, but also the entire organization for migration.

Migration planning requires that marketing, operations, engineering, customer services and others be involved. If engineering switches the infrastructure, theoretically nothing should change for the rest of the organization. But we have seen that, in reality, this is not the case.

For example, we have seen carriers neglect developing a complete plan resulting in ill effects to service due to infrastructure that was poorly prepared for capacity fluctuations, while in other areas of their network there was under-utilized capacity as marketing delayed the launch of new services.

Choose partners carefully

The right partner, of course, can deliver the right equipment, but also understand the operator's strategy and is willing to go the extra mile.

Here's an example of selecting the wrong partner. We encountered an operator in APAC who had installed a new infrastructure, but whose vendor had refused to provide maintenance for the full network. The vendor claimed that maintenance would not be supported after the network was commissioned, but would only be supported during the commissioning of an individual site.

The right vendor has to deliver not just its product lines but also integration. The paradox is that not all vendors, including the largest ones, have that capacity or capability. The large players may do it with their major accounts, but will be very reluctant to integrate to the required extent with smaller customers. On the other end of the spectrum, smaller vendors may not have the actual capabilities to perform.

We have witnessed issues related to aligning the network with new technologies. For example, an EMEA operator wanted to switch their backhaul to Ethernet. The motivation was actually to provide new services as well as reduce opex. In discussing the plan, we discovered that integration with the wireless provider was required. But in addition to integration, a complete change in network topology and the way that queues were handled were called for.

The operator was reluctant at first. But after setting up an environment and proving successful integration, deployment began. In one site, the operations team refused to use the new scheme. This domain proved to be a source of a serious quality of service problem and was later adjusted to match the rest of the network.

When it comes to backhaul transformation, operators should avoid the common traps. These traps include poor platform investment choices, disregard for a holistic planning approach, wrong partner selection and choosing the wrong solution for network needs.

Our experience has shown that making the easy choices usually means that the hard work will come later, at a much greater cost.

Oren Barkai is solutions team leader and Adi Mendel is NGN voice & MW radio product manager for ECI Telecom