PARTNER FEATURE: As the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic puts a sharper emphasis on the importance of connectivity for economies to continue to operate, industry leaders came together at this year’s virtual GSMA Thrive Latin America event to highlight the weight of a strong backhaul strategy and framework for both mobile and fixed infrastructure.
The world has changed as we know it. The Covid-19 pandemic has not only resulted in record increases in traffic across networks globally, but enterprises have also ramped up their digital transformation efforts in a bid to combat the effects of the health crisis.
Coupled with ever-growing end user demand for video, content, social media and a need to work remotely, reliance on next-generation connectivity to cope with bandwidth-heavy traffic has never been so high.
And while the global attention on 5G in the early stages of the technology has been focussed on pace setters Asia and North America, as well as parts of Europe, it was clear from this edition of the GSMA’s Thrive series that Latin America is staking a claim to join the party.
GSMA Intelligence estimates that there will be 62 million 5G connections in Latin America by 2025, noting there is a growing trend in deployment of private networks by enterprises in sectors including manufacturing, mining and utilities, with IoT connections tipped to reach 1.2 billion by 2025.
Hosting a panel dubbed ‘Futureproofing the network: Wireless backhaul in a post Covid world’ at the Thrive event, Alejandro Fabain Adamowicz, Regional Technology and Strategic Engagement Director, GSMA Latin America, summed up the region’s expected progress over the next four years, stating it will see data growth of four times up to 2025, amounting to 25GB per smartphone on average.
“We estimate that 80 million new users will join the mobile network from here to 2025, and this increase in demand will see a combination of connections on 3G, 4G and 5G networks. This promises to be one of the main use cases of the region, and networks have a huge challenge on how to manage that,” Adamowicz forecast.
Adamowicz continued to state that such rapid development made it very important to address the issue of backhaul in particular, with fibre and wireless the main technologies for operators to guarantee coverage for increased traffic.
Drawing back to the Covid-19 pandemic, Adamowicz noted that this time last year was when the world was first receiving news about Covid-19, and within 20-30 days the globe moved from normal to lockdowns, resulting in traffic increases of up to 40 per cent to 50 per cent. “Networks have been able to support this with very good equality,” he said.
“This is one of the few things that is positive in the post-pandemic world,” he stated. “Industry 4.0 technology has accelerated, companies have embraced technology and nothing will go back to being as before.”
Backhaul becomes critical
As Adamowicz alluded to, the issue of backhaul has taken on new levels of importance, as the world begins to adapt to a post-Covid environment.
Also speaking on the panel, Laurent Frederic Bodusseau, Senior Director Spectrum, GSMA, revealed the organisation has been doing a lot of work with both vendors and operators on backhaul, adding it has collaborated with ABI Research to look into the issue in more detail and produce reports.
And in line with his colleague, Bodusseau (pictured, left) concurred that backhaul requirements are increasing as a result of growing mobile data traffic, as well as voice. 5G data traffic, meanwhile, was tipped to account for about 83 per cent of overall data consumption by the same timeframe.
Bodusseau noted in particular the backhaul topology was changing, and there were options available for operators, in addition to using additional spectrum.
These include a range of technology options to help operators increase capacity and efficiency of their backhaul networks.
“The first one is XPIC, which is transmitting signals on both the horizontal and vertical plane, using the same radio channels and eliminating the interference from the second polarisation, resulting in double the spectral efficiency. Then you have carrier aggregation, with both multiple channels in the same or in different frequency bands all supporting greater capacity. This can help extend the life of traditional narrow microwave band.”
He added there was also the option of integrated access backhaul, which allows spectrum to be used for both the access, and the backhaul. And finally, there is also Line-of-Sight MIMO, allowing several radio transmissions over the same channel.
He continued to state that generally, combinations of backhaul solutions are employed by operators, which tend to favour a mix of fixed-line and wireless solutions to increase capacity and receive coverage.
“Relying solely on fibre deployments for network certification, however, requires a significant commitment of capital expenditure, time and manpower. Wireless backhaul, on the other hand, has an advantage in ease of deployment and accessibility to operators, so they will obviously increasingly incorporate fixed wireless backhaul in network planning when they’re looking at 5G, for the clarification of their network.”
To that end, Bodusseau said the GSMA definitely sees a “further increase of microwave and of course millimetre wave (mmWave) backhaul links”, which he projected will make up at least 60 per cent of the global Macro and small cell backhaul links from 2021 to 2027.
“We really need to have backhaul bands that support links that will work with a high variability,” said Bodusseau. “In conclusion, we are working on our policy position, which will broadly be one pushing for new backhaul bands. Clearly we can’t do with what we have.”
He added there was now a need for a better backhaul licensing approach (such as block-based or hybrid licensing), as well as more conformity in prices set for backhaul across different countries. Bodusseau also called for regulators to consult the industry and ensure spectrum for backhaul “is made available at the right time in sufficient quantities, and under the right conditions and at the right price”.
E-band and mmWave
Renato Lombardi (pictured, left), VP Microwave PL, Head of Italy Research Centre, Huawei, focused a large part of his presentation on the use of millimetre wave frequencies to meet the requirements of 5G backhaul.
He explained that the company had worked on dividing base stations into different categories; from urban, rural and suburban, which have different requirements in terms of hotspot capacity and backhaul as a whole.
“Microwave plays a very important role for the backhaul. When we look at the whole mobile network, we see that wireless backhaul in these networks is up to more than 70 per cent of the connection.”
“This is one of the reasons why the industry still sees significant investment in microwave, in order to have a product and a solution that can fulfil the requirements of 5G.”
Aside from traditional microwave for backhaul, Lombardi touted the use of E-Band (running on 70/80GHz), which he said would also play a very significant role in the deployment of 5G.
He pointed to some successes, such as in Saudi Arabia, where there had been significant deployment of 5G and E-band has been implemented for backhauling 5G sites.
Lombardi noted operators in the Middle East region were able to provide “incredibly high peak rates” thanks to the use of E-band.
To make E-band solution cover more scenarios, Huawei launched its Long Reach E-Band solution. This can extend E-Band transmission distance by 50%, and one innovation to make this happen is the Intelligent Beam Tracking (IBT) Antenna, which can allow large size E-Band antennas general deployable in relatively non-stable sites.
Lombardi also said there have been 86 countries releasing E-band spectrum, but there were still many markets that had not released the relevant spectrum yet.
The Huawei executive urged regulators and governments to release access to spectrum faster, as well as lower spectrum costs for both traditional microwave bands and E-band in certain countries.
“The licence fees for the spectrum cannot linearly scale with capacity. So, it’s not only a matter of introducing new technology for microwave, but also to make sure that the spectrum regulations and the licencing schemes can ideally make it possible and affordable for operators.”
Providing a regional view of the Latin American market in a panel discussion, Natalia Pignataro Uranga, CTO of Uruguayan operator Antel, drew on the link between fibre to the home services and backhaul, stating such networks had given it the possibility to connect to backhaul and increase capacity “by adding spectra on various radio”, which supported growth in terms of bandwidth.
Uranga said the company had recently seen an increase of 60 per cent to 70 per cent of traffic in mobile networks, and it was using a mix of both wireless backhaul and wired backhaul solutions to cope with the situation.
On the subject of 5G, Uranga believes initial uptake of the service will be based on improving the mobile broadband experience, with low latency capabilities a key driver. As the technology evolves, she touted additional use cases, including connected cars and industry 4.0, all of which would require additional backhaul capabilities.
Also on the panel, Carlos Sanchez, COO at Mexican wholesale provider Altan Redes, spoke of the company’s desire to democratise connectivity, as it counts MVNOs, as well as cable and satellite companies, as its customers.
In total, it serves 3 million users, which is a mix of both mobile and home broadband.
In terms of its backhaul requirements, Sanchez said recent growth in traffic, both from mobile and broadband, had made the issue very important.
“Backhaul has to be very flexible because it has to accommodate these traffic volumes, especially when wireless connection is intensified with broadband solutions,” said Sanchez. “It has to be able to be profitable when we start to work with regulators in order to have access to more spectrum bands for wireless solutions, not just for high band, but also in lower bands to make our technology reach all communities.”
Across to Colombia, Iader Maldonado, CTO of Claro Colombia, outlined the challenges the country faced in relation to backhaul, nothing there were different requirements as the country was broken up into around 1500 municipalities.
He said Colombia had worked hard on introducing fibre and 4.5G connectivity nationwide, and while mobile backhaul in the larger cities based on fibre was possible, other parts of the population needed to be covered by microwave.
He added the availability of spectrum bands to address this issue was becoming critical.
“Every day, bands become more complicated,” said Maldonado. “We are working closely with the regulators on the release of these bands, which is important so we can provide new capabilities.
Drawing on Covid-19’s impact on the country, he said the operator had seen a general trend of more peak rates of traffic outside of the big cities, while there were traffic increases in households due to the pandemic, which was affecting its strategy.
“We have seen an important acceleration here. Everyone is connecting to Wi-Fi and the house is becoming the core for most companies. So, it’s a huge challenge in regards to how we operate the network, but also a huge opportunity for operators.”
Indeed, the growing need to be connected, which has been more apparent than ever due to the impact of Covid-19, has put the issue of backhaul firmly into the limelight.
This year’s session from Huawei on the issue highlighted the different approaches operators and vendors are taking, both for mobile and fibre networks, while there was also a growing call for standards organisations and regulators to help accommodate next-generation technology through the release of necessary licensing and spectrum.Subscribe to our daily newsletter Back