4G Status Report: Overcoming backhaul congestion--the 4G dilemma

Before becoming Gilligan, Bob Denver was Maynard G. Krebs, the beatnik on Dobie Gillis who, when hearing a certain word, would shriek in bug-eyed horror, "WORK!" Of course, being a '60s sitcom, instant hilarity--or laugh track--would then commence.

Today's wireless industry has a similar reaction to yet another word but, as audience members will learn at the panel session "Overcoming backhaul congestion-the 4G dilemma," knee-slapping gaiety will likely not commence when one of the panelists shrieks "BACKHAUL!"

"I haven't talked to any operator who hasn't said that backhaul isn't something they're looking at. There's pretty good knowledge of the challenge and more awareness of some of the solutions out there," said Susan Welsh de Grimaldo, senior analyst of wireless network strategies for Strategy Analytics.

Awareness isn't the same as comfort with the limited backhaul options available for 4G services. "We've looked at all the methods that are out there. I don't think the list is very long and everybody probably knows it by heart," said Scott McElroy, vice president of network technology for AT&T.

The list includes T1s, fiber, cable and wireless. "T1s are not going to go away any time soon," said de Grimaldo.

But they're not welcome to bring any friends to the backhaul party, said McElroy. "T1s are passé today. We are easily far enough up on the curve right now that adding capacity a T1 at a time doesn't even give you time to process the order before your demand has outweighed the capacity," he said.

Fiber is the ultimate, of course, but fiber's not always right next to a cell site. "AT&T's strong suit is what we bring to the table in terms of a fiber infrastructure," said McElroy. "But there are some other things that have to be considered because AT&T doesn't have that fiber infrastructure everywhere."

The third wireline option is often viewed as the most repugnant: partner with a cable player. "I think we're going to see more use of their types of networks for some of the backhaul, particularly in suburban areas," de Grimaldo said. "We'll see more relationships negotiated between owners of fiber and cable and U.S. operators."

That's because when it comes to wireline backhaul "you don't have many alternatives; you're either going to aggregate copper using a variety of technologies... you're going to use glass or you're going to use some kind of over-the-air technology and that pretty much summarizes the options," McElroy said.

Over-the-air doesn't have the stigma it once did. "Microwave has come a long way. The price points, the performance, there's a lot happening there that makes it ideal for backhaul. A lot of operators already have spectrum that they can utilize as backhaul with microwave," said de Grimaldo.

Even unlicensed spectrum might have its place, although that might be more of a temporary fix. Whatever is used, backhaul congestion is a reality today that will only continue to shock and awe carriers. "This is not a one tool fits everything. You need a toolbox," she said. "Ultimately you need to look at integrating backhaul into your network planning so that when you're designing where to locate your cell sites... You work backhaul into the equation."