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LTE Backhaul Decision-Making a Minefield for Mobile Operators

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Mobile operators must begin planning now to support backhaul of Long Term Evolution (LTE) services, but a marked lack of an industry consensus around specific architectures and protocols for LTE backhaul makes these choices both difficult and dangerous, according to a major new report from Heavy Reading.

"Driven by a growth in data traffic that is typically ten times greater than the incremental revenue they are able to charge for it, cellular operators have begun to turn up packet backhaul service at some of their cell sites," notes Patrick Donegan, Senior Analyst with Heavy Reading and author of the report. "But just as operators are finally addressing what has long been branded the 'backhaul bottleneck' in 3G, the likelihood that LTE will need to start to be deployed in the next one to three years is imposing a new set of requirements on backhaul evolution - one to which network operators now must pay very close attention."

Despite widespread uncertainty surrounding the requirements for LTE backhaul, Donegan continues, cellular network upgrades increasingly must be planned with a view to supporting LTE as well as current generations of 2G and 3G traffic. "Operators need to optimize their backhaul investments so as to ensure the best alignment with their need for near-term, 3G-oriented, tactical cost savings on the one hand, and LTE-oriented IP transformation objectives on the other."

Key findings of Backhaul Evolution Strategies for LTE Operators include the following:

When operators scale the LTE network to take advantage of the new standard's full service and technology roadmaps, there will be a marked change in the features and performance that are needed in the backhaul to support it optimally. In their plans to support LTE, backhaul network planners have very challenging strategic decisions to make with respect to enhancing the capabilities they have in key areas, such as optimization of the new X2 interface, network security, network synchronization, and distribution of core network functionality.

Isolating the transport-related features that are required for LTE launch from those that are not, while also establishing a low-cost upgrade path for new capabilities over time, is key to operators' backhaul planning for LTE. A "bells and whistles" approach to backhaul now may save money in the long term, but it will cost more now and may also delay LTE rollout by adding complexity. By contrast, a low-cost, "bare essentials" deployment will enable faster initial time to market, but it may also result in a higher cost for adding new capabilities over time.

Distribution of core network functionality out toward the backhaul network is a key feature of the LTE standard, but most operators are unlikely to implement this for some time. Most operators are likely to launch LTE with the Evolved Packet Core elements centralized in a conventional manner. They can nevertheless be expected to distribute core network intelligence toward the edge of the network over time, in line with LTE traffic growth.

Alcatel-Lucent has the best backhaul equipment footprint with those operators that will be the first to launch LTE. With its latest generation of transport networking products being deployed by LTE leaders such as NTT DoCoMo, TeliaSonera, and Verizon Wireless, Alcatel-Lucent's equipment is set to support LTE traffic in volume ahead of other backhaul equipment vendors. Tellabs, the overall market leader in packet backhaul equipment until now, is not featuring prominently among these early-adopter deployments.

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Tags: lte  backhaul  planning  2g