U.S. cellular networks will need fatter pipes to the wired Internet to keep delivering a satisfying mobile experience: nearly 10 times fatter by 2016, according to research company iGR.
Five bars on a phone's signal gauge won't mean a fast Internet connection unless there's a fat enough link between the cell tower and the wired Internet to carry all the traffic, said iGR founder Iain Gillott. Upgrading those links, known as backhaul, is a high priority for mobile operators over the next few years, Gillott said.
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As consumers use more smartphones, tablets and other devices over the coming years, the need for backhaul capacity will grow in step, he said. Specifically, iGR studied the traffic on cellular wireless networks and concluded that the total demand for mobile bandwidth at peak hours in the U.S. in 2011 was 750Gbps. By 2016, it's forecast to reach 7.3Tbps, or about 9.7 times as much.
To meet that demand, carriers will have to increase their backhaul capacity by an annual growth rate of 58 percent during that period, Gillott said. Along the way, they will also change the mix of technologies they use for backhaul, moving aggressively from copper lines to fiber and, in some cases, microwave, he said.
Another analyst expects even faster growth. Dell'Oro Group analyst Jimmy Yu estimates that worldwide demand for backhaul capacity will grow at an annual growth rate of 70 percent between now and 2016.
Powerful and efficient new wireless standards, especially LTE, will allow mobile operators to solve performance problems on radio-access networks. But they also invite subscribers to use cellular for more demanding applications, including multimedia. Carriers want to make sure they don't create a new performance problem.
"If you don't put sufficient backhaul in, you just move the bottleneck, and that is a real concern of theirs," Gillott said. An average base station has a connection of about 5Mbps, he said. In four years, some easily may need 1Gbps.
Most base stations still are connected to a wireline network via traditional copper interfaces, according to iGR. In 2011, 60 percent used copper, 30 percent had fiber and 10 percent were linked via wireless microwave links through the air, Gillott said. By 2016, he expects 67 percent fiber, 19 percent copper, and 14 percent microwave.
Aside from microwave, backhaul connections in the U.S. are most often supplied by incumbent wireline carriers or cable operators. Although Verizon and AT&T are also rivals to other mobile operators, the federal government wouldn't let them use that power to block or discriminate against operators such as Sprint and T-Mobile, Gillott believes.