Is there still space for microwave in the telecoms landscape?

September 1st, 2014, Published in Articles: EngineerIT


Does microwave fit into the modern telecoms landscape which is dominated by fibre? It is true that in telecoms, fibre-based connectivity dominates in both demand and in the eye of the media with promises of low-cost business solutions and even the possibility of fibre to home solutions.  However, according to Hendrik du Plooy of Broadlink, microwave still has its place in the connectivity landscape for the foreseeable future. If not as a standalone option, it can also be considered a viable redundancy or backup solution or even as an interim solution before implementing fibre.

Hendrik du Plooy "microwave links are most cost-effective when servicing large populations over small distances.

Hendrik du Plooy: “Microwave links are most cost-effective when servicing large populations over small distances.”

Stefano Resi of Nokia Networks agrees and said in a teleconference with EngineerIT  that microwave is still a very important technology in terms of backhauling  for cellular networks, and also as a point to point system providing telephone and data links for businesses in areas where landline, fibre or cellular system are not available or cannot provide the required bandwidth. EE Publishers is a good example of how microwave powers our communication.  With rampant cable theft and inadequate broadband cellular coverage, microwave to the service provider’s nearest tower was the obvious solution.

Referring to other countries on the African continent Du Plooy says that considering Africa’s lack of fixed lines in stark contrast to its growing demand for a variety of telecom services, microwave still has a vital role to play: “Africa is the world’s second-largest and second-most-populous continent with more than 1,1-billion people living across 50 nations. To expand the reach of telecom services in rural African communities is one of the continent’s greatest challenges. It is here where microwave links are most cost effective when servicing large populations over small distances and one of the main reasons why it is relevant in today’s telecoms landscape.”

Africa Digital Statistics states that in excess of 61% of the total population is rural with only 39% urban.  Coupled with mobile penetration of 67% and internet penetration of 18%, Africa remains a key emerging market for broad-based telecoms, but mostly, it is critical for microwave. Similarly, in South Africa a number of key economies driving industries such as agriculture and mining exist in areas with no or limited fixed line connectivity exists.

“Fibre has come a long way with many routes becoming available. There are however still large rural areas that don’t have access to fibre because the business case for rural areas is not compelling when compared to metro areas. In outer lying areas such as these, microwave and other wireless services are still considered a very viable alternative for businesses,” says Du Plooy.

Rural areas will still likely be without fibre access for at least another decade as the cost to deploy fibre is exorbitant relative to the return on investment. Microwave services will still be a force to be reckoned with.

Geographic statistics aside, Du Plooy says there are other viable reasons why microwave remains relevant: “The pressure on GSM operators to deliver LTE services to all parts of Africa, including rural areas, also means that these high sites will have to be connected via microwave due to lack of fibre services and the bandwidth demands that LTE puts on a network.

“While costs have come down and many providers have created innovative fibre models, getting fibre directly can still be prohibitively expensive, especially for smaller businesses and small and medium enterprises that are the lifeblood of Africa’s economy. Microwave still offers much shorter lead times when compared to fibre, especially if trenching is required. Fibre can take a minimum of six months to install, while microwave makes a good, rapid interim solution.”

In considering the future of Africa’s telecoms, Du Plooy says he thinks the sweet spot is in the collaboration between fibre and microwave:  “Combining microwave and fibre infrastructure could be an ideal solution to overcome some of Africa’s communications challenges of either medium. Customers want reliable connectivity, which means at the heart of any telecoms strategy, should be innovation and the coupling of technologies for the greater good of all.”

Stefano Resi "The development of newer microwave technology  has much to do with the expansion rather than contraction of the market”.

Stefano Resi: “The development of newer microwave technology has much to do with the expansion rather than contraction of the market”.

“The development of newer microwave technology also has much to do with the expansion rather than contraction of the market”, says Resi.  Microwave went from a time division multiplex (TDM) system to a hybrid system – either TDM over internet protoco (IP) or IP over TDM to an all-IP system. Infonetics research into the global microwave market shows that during the first quarter of this year, the hybrid microwave systems shared 73% of the market with pure IP systems  the balance (27%). The researchers forecast that by 2018 the figure will be reversed with IP systems dominating the market at 73%.  IP or Ethernet microwave offers distinct advantages the main one being lower latency.

Resi said that some years ago there was an architectural discussion around  bringing layer 3 (IP) to the peripheral of the network or keep it in the switching domain.  The first microwave links only offered layer 2. “What we envisioned was that the indoor unit would be dispensed with and be replaced by a router which is fully seamless IP and multiprotocol label switching (MPLS)-capable.”

A MPLS network is a private network technology that gives network operators a great deal of flexibility to route and divert traffic around failed link and jamming.

With the extensive expansion of broadband mobile networks and the role out of LTE, backhaul microwave will continue to be a dominant player.

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