At a controversial – at least in our view - ITExpo Austin 2012 panel discussion on October 5, 2012, Mannix O’Connor, director of technical marketing at the Optical Communications Systems (OCS) division of MRV Communications, tried hard to make the case that issues of insufficient broadband availability is not an issue of lack of spectrum in the industry, but simply an issue of poorly using what is available.
We’ve made note of the lack of spectrum issue in several recent articles, and a recent industry report from Deloitte concurs with our view that there are serious roadblocks in opening up available spectrum and that we legitimately lack enough of it to meet our wireless broadband needs. In addition, we’ve also been covering the issues surrounding the White Space spectrum, though that is slowly beginning to resolve itself into a viable market.
OConner started by focusing on the significant cost to carriers, on average, to get up a cell site and tower – which ranges from $150,000 - $500,000. Capex is currently $78 – $230 per subscriber. When Opex is factored in, the ability to recover cost per subscriber is approximately four to five months per subscriber. For smaller carriers, spend is higher than for the major carriers. The chart below provides details.
Data transmission and traffic from the cell tower – that is, wireless backhaul – will likely travel through various carrier networks before it gets to where it needs to go, as the diagram below shows. Most wireless data – whether on the downlink or uplink (for example, a request for an MP3 file and the actual delivery of the file) - goes through a great deal of backhaul infrastructure. O’Conner is not convinced that the carriers are optimally distributing data from the cell tower antenna to the wireless base station that connects to the backhaul network, but primarily spectrum issues begin at the base station going into the backhaul network.
O’Conner admits that actual wireless spectrum is limited – from a pure physical perspective (and a lot of wireless spectrum is reserved for many other issues than for mobile cellular communications). But he also suggests that it is the backhaul spectrum – how much actual data can be “squeezed” through the backend network that is the real current issue that currently drives wireless performance.
O’Conner next notes and suggests that the “big” cell towers are becoming difficult to add to the national wireless topology, particularly in cities of any size. Most of the big cell tower locations have already been taken and there are fewer and fewer places to put new ones. One answer is to add smaller towers that are more densely deployed (even to the point of putting them in homes), though that is a longer term view of it. Never the less, O’Conner contends that the issue still ultimately comes down to how the back end and backhaul networks handle the data (packets, frames, etc).
Are the carriers effectively and efficiently utilizing the available back end bandwidth? This is the key question where O’Conner contends the true “poor use of bandwidth” comes into play. He notes that all the carriers try to deliver a very high class of data (voice, video, etc) regardless of the data, regardless of the amount of latency that the particular application in hand requires. O’Connor strongly believes that the carriers need to figure out how to properly allocate data packets and they need to figure out how to push much more traffic down to lower classes of delivery capability – in turn freeing up much more bandwidth at the high and very high end of service delivery capabilities (represented by the right side of the diagram shown below).
In fact O’Connor makes a very strong case – assuming the argument is valid that the carriers are not paying nearly enough attention to the backhaul issues, and we buy the argument – that, at least on the back end, we are poorly using available spectrum. Is it a silver bullet to the long term wireless bandwidth issues we continue to face? No, at the end of the day we still must get many more cell towers up and running and O’Connor concurs with that, but the issue is made somewhat less urgent by taking the back end into full account. Hopefully the carriers will smarten up and do so.
Pure wireless spectrum remains a substantial issue, as we’ve noted in the earlier articles we highlighted above.
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Edited by Brooke Neuman