Sprint's backhaul conundrum

Last month Sprint Nextel said provisioning of backhaul is the primary hold-up to the operator's nationwide deployment of mobile WiMAX. Sprint, which was supposed to launch its Xohm network in April, is having difficulty finding high-capacity transport links to connect cell sites as typical T-1 lines that feed today's mobile networks are inefficient for high-speed wireless broadband data.

The problem is that the majority of Sprint's sites today are T-1 lines, and there just isn't a lot of fiber and microwave options available across the country. The link between the local area network and local fiber ring is still challenged by older technology and poor coverage, offering limited access to high-capacity connections. The use of microwave is still limited to operators' highest density sites as they have traditionally rolled it out on as-needed basis.

Most experts believed that Sprint was going to initially start out with T-1s for backhaul of the WiMAX network since it was readily available, eventually migrating to backhaul technology capable of dealing with high-speed broadband data. Perhaps Sprint decided the quality of WiMAX was at stake, and now it finds itself scrambling for alternatives. Suppliers are short in this area because they haven't seen the demand coming from operators and because T-1 lines are a highly lucrative business.

With AT&T and Verizon rolling out Long Term Evolution in two years, we'll begin seeing a big demand T-1 alternatives, although these two landline companies can leverage the much of the fiber networks they have. The dark horse is cable. With a deep penetration of fiber, they could be powerful partner for a company like Sprint, but have yet to make any significant moves in the area.

The next few years should see an explosion in alternative backhaul technology providers, making the traditionally boring business quite interesting--Lynnette