Mobile Network Operators to deploy more small cells, but backhaul challenges remain

There’s no doubt that mobile network operators (MNOs) need more capacity at a lower total cost of ownership.  New backhaul technologies are being considered, and some analysts predict $30 billion will be spent on backhaul equipment between now and 2017. However, with the explosion in demand for wireless bandwidth, which could reach 11.2 exabytes per month by 2017, there will be more small cell installations (to expand capacity due to frequency re-use in each small cell)ne, especially in hard-to-wire locations. These small cell extensions allow carriers to add capacity or coverage in a more targeted manner. However, the design and implementation of the backhaul and fronthaul can be even more complex than a traditional macro site.

“Operators participating in our small cell backhaul survey have yet to scale their small cell deployments, but they are looking to place over 20% of their traffic from the macro network onto small cells by 2018,” notes Richard Webb, directing analyst for mobile backhaul and small cells at Infonetics Research. “But they also tell us that backhaul-specific challenges like planning site acquisition, power and connection sourcing, and cost models have impacted deployment timelines.”

Infonetics Research released excerpts from its 2014 Small Cell Backhaul Strategies: Global Service Provider Survey, which provides insights into operator plans for small cell backhaul.


  • Ethernet over fiber is survey respondents’ preferred backhaul technology for outdoor small cells, followed bypoint-to-point microwave and millimeter wave
  • Ethernet over fiber is the most-used technology for in-building deployments
  • With small cell deployments occurring in a range of locations and with an array of topologies, no single backhaul technology will be a universal solution
  • Likewise, no single vendor is likely to dominate the small cell backhaul landscape; it is still early days, but so far survey participants strongly favor a group of vendors with wired and wireless backhaul solutions
  • Respondent operators rate price-to-performance ratio, product reliability, and pricing as the top 3 criteria for choosing a small cell backhaul vendor





For its 34-page small cell backhaul survey, Infonetics interviewed purchase decision makers at 25 incumbent, mobile, competitive, and cable operators from Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Asia Pacific, the Caribbean and Latin America, and North America about their current and future plans for small cell backhaul. The study provides insights into mobile traffic handling, specific backhaul issues related to in-building and outdoor small cells, and vendor preferences. The operators participating in the study control 29% of the world’s telecom capex.

To buy the report, contact Infonetics:

Ron Mundry, CEO & Founder of Tower Cloud wrote in a Light Reading blog:  

To accommodate increasing bandwidth demand, carriers such as Verizon Wireless are deploying more small cells, and sites are becoming smaller, simpler and denser. According to SNS Research, the global market for 3G and 4G plateaued in 2013 at $52 billion, and is expected to drop by 2% annually, falling to $47 billion by 2020. Carriers are shifting spending to heterogeneous networking (HetNet), including small cell, carrier WiFi, distributed antenna systems (DAS) and cloud RAN (C-RAN) hardware. The small cell and carrier WiFi market alone should reach $4 billion in 2015. Mobile network operators are gearing up for a new kind of backhaul architecture that makes better use of the fronthaul radio access network.

The old access/aggregation/core hierarchy model — where data is collected at a base station and backhauled to aggregation points — no longer works in overloaded wireless networks, especially in dense urban areas. Subscribers armed with smartphones and tablets with video capability are putting a strain on the edges of the network, and mobile operators are now using macro cells to extend network access. The result is an evolution in small cell and macro cell applications, and the adoption of new HetNet architectural models to deliver voice and data.

Of course, there are challenges with small cell fronthaul networks. Carriers have to transmit data from both high-power and low-power RRHs to the BBUs, and using small cells can introduce high levels of cell edge interference. There also may be difficulties interfacing with existing macro networks.

And both RRHs and BBUs have to overcome real-estate restrictions. You have to have access rights and power at the RRH from a streetlamp or other street furniture. The BBU has to be optimally placed in relation to the RRH units, and it has to be accessible for maintenance — a combination of an engineering and a real-estate challenge. You also want to make fiber connections from the base station to the RRH and the antenna wherever possible, although wireless fronthaul and backhaul designs are evolving for cell sites deployed along roadsides and to cover rural areas, where fiber is even less practical.

As small cell architectures continue to evolve, it will be up to carriers and small cell providers to work together to perfect new design approaches that make engineering and economic sense. The early small cell installations have demonstrated positive price performance, but we have to perfect fronthaul design and closely manage cost of ownership to ensure that the promise of small cell density and the benefits of HetNet are fulfilled.…

One thought on “Mobile Network Operators to deploy more small cells, but backhaul challenges remain

  1. Could be more elaborate on which network operators will deploy more small cells. However, it is a very good article.

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