Cellular backhaul can transform the digital landscape

Mobile network operators (MNOs) are poised to become the primary way in which we connect, and this is opening up new use cases.

By Semir Hassanaly

As 5G comes to fruition, the number of devices is continuing to boom and the demand for data is exploding across the globe. By combining the rapid drop in space segment prices with sophisticated and highly capable ground equipment, the cellular backhaul landscape is changing radically – and this is all thanks to reliable, efficient satellite connectivity.

And why satellite? Because providing access to high-demand applications, such as community internet access and mobile backhaul, can stimulate socio-economic activity in any region. This includes public institutions, which benefit from dedicated services. Due to the prohibitive costs and excessive time needed to deploy terrestrial backhaul networks on islands and other hard-to-serve areas, satellite is ideal to provide backbone connectivity to such regions. In the event of a cable failure or natural disaster, it is also the fastest recovering method of connectivity. Satellite has the power to bridge digital divides and fulfil universal service obligations (USO) anywhere in the world. Satellite-based cellular backhaul is therefore in high demand and a major growth area.

This is also opening up opportunities.

Offloading traffic in congested areas, postponing or avoiding ground network upgrades, sporadic use cases like railroads or sporting events, and even first-responder networks are becoming profitable applications for the satellite industry.

Satellite backhaul, however, is still in its infancy, with a remarkable 50% of the world still not connected to the internet, according to the World Wide Web Foundation. Despite this, the opportunity to expand the number of sites that could be economically served using satellite backhaul from current levels of coverage is huge, with a total of 507,000 new broadband base stations.

But there are cellular backhaul challenges. Operators looking to deploy satellite backhaul must deal with increased latency and operational costs – which can be mitigated with the right solutions. In order to do this, MNOs need a reliable solution that also provides enhanced QoS and QoE. It should allow easy extension of connectivity to rural sites and integrate seamlessly within their terrestrial network. Multiservice capabilities also allow access to multiple market verticals – increasing revenue – while scalability is another important feature for large point-to-multipoint networks and for demanding high-speed trunks.

What we need is a collaborative approach. With a rich history of enabling MNOs to expand their service to remote and rural markets, cellular backhaul can play a key role in networks, from an initial 2G voice solution to a 4G/LTE data solution. As data rates around the world continue to rise and the profile of the mobile end user continues to change, we have no doubt that cellular backhaul will also evolve and play a key role in the new 5G landscape.

Of course, to truly narrow the digital divide across the world, more than just technology is required. Continued partnerships between satellite players and MNOs are also key and can create opportunities for both, as well as change the landscape of the cellular connectivity market for the better. Adding satellite into their network mix will give MNOs the power to extend the reach of their service and address new use cases. These include traffic offload for congested urban networks, over-the-top (OTT) content distribution and critical connectivity for disaster response efforts.

Hybrid networking also prepares MNOs to handle the next era of connectivity – 5G. This calls for total integration of satellite connectivity with the 5G network model. According to NSR, one-third of net satellite capacity revenue growth in backhaul over the next ten years will be generated by 5G-differentiated applications, such as 5G backhaul and hybrid networks. This is partly due to 5G backhaul capacity demand consuming four to five times the bandwidth of a 4G site. 

Semir Hassanaly is Head of Cellular Backhaul and Trunking at ST Engineering iDirect.

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