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Bandwidth Advantage: OFC scores over microwave as a backhaul technology

July 27, 2015
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India has the third largest internet population after China and the US. Currently, 25 per cent of subscribers in India use the internet, of which 85 per cent access broadband via wireless technologies. Of this 85 per cent, 40 per cent of customers use 3G networks to access broadband.

Current status and technology options

At present, there are 500,000 mobile towers in the country that are connected to the backhaul network.  Substantial investment has been made in connecting them through optical fibre cable (OFC). However, only 15-20 per cent of the towers are currently fiberised. Going forward, growth in data traffic and the roll-out of 3G/4G networks will increase fibre penetration to meet high bandwidth and low latency needs. In the past five years, data traffic on wireless networks has grown 25 times. As users move from 2G to 3G to long term evolution (LTE) networks, data usage will increase further.

With 2G and 3G networks, the average distance between tower sites is 700-1,000 metres, with aggregate and tail capacities of 200-500 Mbps and 10-50 Mbps respectively. In contrast, in LTE and small cell network architecture, the average distance between tower sites is 200-300 metres, with aggregate and tail capacities of 2-5 Gbps and 200-500 Mbps respectively. Therefore, LTE necessitates the deployment of fibre at the tower site.

There are two main technological options for backhaul networks – microwave and OFC. Typically, fibre cable has enormous bandwidth capacity and can offer a bandwidth of 1 Tbps per single pair as compared to 300 Mbps provided by microwave technology. Since the cable is laid out under the ground, it is not subjected to harsh weather conditions. Further, OFC allows adequate transmission up to very long distances without the need for repeaters. Another benefit of using OFC is that it is technology agnostic. To upgrade the network to new technologies, operators have to merely change the equipment, as the fibre cable can support any amount of bandwidth. It also offers low latency transmission and ensures adequate security of transmission.


One of the biggest impediments to the deployment of OFC continues to be securing right of way (RoW) from multiple government authorities, which results in delays in project execution. Also, municipal authorities levy high charges for RoW, which increases the cost of fibre deployment. High upfront investments are another issue in fibre roll-outs. That said, on an overall cost basis, despite fibre being costlier than microwave, its incremental costs are lower. Other issues are difficulty in laying fibre in mountainous and desert terrain, and logistical problems, which are not encountered in microwave technology.

In terms of cost-benefit analysis, the total cost of ownership (TCO) of a 3 km fibre cable with 1 Gbps of bandwidth is significantly higher than that of E-band and microwave. For higher bandwidth, however, the TCO for E-band microwave increases rapidly with usage over a long period. As per Huawei’s analysis, the TCO of microwave and a 3 km fibre cable with 2 Gbps bandwidth becomes equivalent if used for seven years.

Going forward, the rising demand for higher speeds will drive the need for more bandwidth, which, in turn, will require fibre deployment in the backhaul. However, issues related to RoW will have to be resolved to facilitate OFC penetration.

Based on a presentation by Vikas Jain, General Manager, Huawei India

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