4G Wireless & the Ensuing Bandwidth Boom

Nortel CTO John RoeseMy previous post about LTE taking the lead in the 4G wireless sweepstakes prompted some interesting comments, including those of sharp readers who pointed out the pokey nature of the wireless backhaul networks. As luck would have it, I had a breakfast meeting this week with John Roese, chief technology officer of Nortel and one of the most astute people I know in the broadband business.

Whether because of a perceived fear of WiMAX or a sudden spurt in data revenues, the LTE announcements made earlier this year didn’t come as a surprise. In the U.S., two major carriers, Verizon and AT&T, are looking to roll out their LTE networks in the early part of the next decade.

Roese had correctly predicted that LTE would arrive much faster than people thought, and he seems to have a much better handle on the 4G timeline than others in the wireless industry. It seemed appropriate to ask him about the wireless backhaul business and the bandwidth demand that LTE will create.

Instead of giving me a pithy quote, Roese laid out the kind of compelling argument only an engineer can make. He pointed out that the wireless carriers are currently using around 3 T-1 or DSL-type connections to connect their 3G base stations. (In some cases they use microwave or passive optical network connections.) A 3G network base station typically has 10 Mbps of capacity.

In a 4G world, where three antennas will form an arc to provide coverage, each antenna will need a 100 Mbps, or about 300 Mbps total, Roese explained to me. The carriers would prefer more headroom, for if there are four carriers per base station, the bandwidth demand per base station could run closer to about 2 gigabits per second.

Clearly today’s pipes aren’t going to be enough. Optical/metro Ethernet might be one of the better options for the 4G bandwidth needs, according to Roese. There are point-to-point wireless backhaul solutions that could come in handy as well, but he said fiber is the real answer. Even at slower 3G speeds, today’s backhaul infrastructure isn’t ready to do the hard work.
Level 3 is one bandwidth provider that could benefit from the LTE-driven demand in the U.S.; we’re told the company has fiber as close as 1,000 feet to most base stations in the country.

From an equipment standpoint, the wireless broadband buildout spells opportunity. Infonetics reports that spending on backhaul equipment will grow to $8.2 billion in 2010 from $4.5 billion in 2007. Juniper Networks wants a piece of that; it recently started offering the BX7000 family of products. (More on this @ Search Telecom)