The backhaul toolbox

No matter how fast 4G network technologies operate, they will always be reliant on backhaul pipes capable of transmitting potentially massive amounts of traffic. Thus, operators likely will be hard-pressed to move toward a 4G future without investing into proper backhaul to support that transition.

Susan Welsh de Grimaldo, an analyst at Strategy AnalyticsVerizon Wireless, which plans to launch 25-30 commercial LTE markets next year, has said it is probably going to rely on fiber backhaul for the first phase of its LTE deployment. However, Verizon Wireless CTO Tony Melone also said that the operator may use microwave backhaul in the future. Verizon's decision illustrates the backhaul dilemma facing carriers as they make their 4G plans: The bottom line may be that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

"Backhaul is working with a toolkit. There's not one thing," said Susan Welsh de Grimaldo, an analyst at Strategy Analytics. "I think they need to be flexible, and look at the options and what's the most cost effective both near and longer term," she said, referring to operators. She also noted that the challenge of adapting backhaul to 4G will not be addressed overnight.

Further, adding backhaul to support 4G may force operators to change the way they implement backhaul, to allow for greater flexibility, Welsh de Grimaldo said. One idea is a pay-as-you-grow model, in which software upgrades are used to handle growing backhaul needs, allowing carriers to avoid making an up-front investment.

"It's a root and branch reform for the whole backhaul approach of these carriers," said Stuart Little, director of corporate marketing at Harris Stratex. Little defended the value proposition of microwave backhaul, but also said that most carriers are still trying to figure out what their backhaul requirements are going to be.

Little said that carriers probably are going to approach backhaul challenges on a nationwide, or network-wide, basis, rather than via a regional approach. Additionally, he said operators and backhaul providers need to dispense with the hype of moving to a pure-IP network overnight.

"I think the market needs a dose reality in terms of how quickly they are realistically going to get to where they want to be, how difficult it's going to be and how much it's going to cost," he said, referring to carriers.

For more on backhaul, check out the "Backhaul bottlenecks-overcoming the 4G dilemma" panel Oct. 28 at 3:15 p.m. EDT. Click here to register.