Mobile phone operators are facing rapidly increasing demands from customers for ever more data to be delivered at ever faster speeds. Many of them are also grappling with the economics of supplying wireless broadband solutions to rural areas with sparse populations.
Network equipment provider Bluwan believes it has developed a solution to both these problems. In February 2011, the company is officially launching a 42GHz ultra wide band point-to-multipoint (PTMP) backhaul and access architecture using fibre through the air (FTTA) technology.
The product was developed out of research undertaken by defence contractor Thales Communications into ultra-wide band military communications and missile guidance systems. Bluwan was founded in 2006, as a spin off from Thales. The company’s R&D, assembly and systems integration HQ is in Paris and its global sales and marketing HQ in London.
Bluwan’s FTTA technology operates in the Q band spectrum (40.5–43.5GHz), which is more appropriate for medium density urban areas in temperate climates and the Ku band spectrum (10.7-12.7GHz), which is better suited to low density or sub-tropical areas.
The Q band spectrum has the advantage of being able to carry a large amount of data, but it is a difficult spectrum to operate in, as transmissions are very susceptible to changes in atmospheric conditions. As a result, it is widely available and heavily underutilised in Europe, meaning there is more than enough capacity to meet future network needs.
EU regulators have allowed member states to adopt 42GHz spectrum for wireless broadband solutions. In the UK, spectrum was auctioned in 2007 with T-Mobile, UK Broadband and MLL Telecom picking up the licences. Many other European countries have yet to auction the spectrum.
Shayan Sanyal, chief marketing officer at Bluwan, explains: ‘We have been working over the last few years to create a system that allows mobile operators or convergent operators to provide very fast access and backhaul broadband through the air. Our product is both a superfast last-mile wireless broadband service and an integrated 3G/4G mobile backhaul solution in one.’
Bluwan’s FTTA system comprises base station, relay and network terminating equipment. It provides up to 12Gbps wireless backhaul capacity from a single base station, n x 100 Mbps point-to-multipoint links and up to 100Mbps broadband access delivered to premises. One major additional benefit is that it can also be used to deliver IPTV or Satellite DVB-S2 TV broadcasts providing up to 30HD and 150SD television channels.
So what’s the economic justification for investment in the technology? Sanyal says: ‘There is a need from a governmental, political and economic perspective to provide 100% broadband access to everyone in the country. But from the operators’ standpoint it doesn’t make sense to provide fibre in sparsely populated regions as they won’t get their money back, so they provide low grade solutions instead.
‘Hence, the digital divide: there is a lack of incentive for operators to provide broadband in rural areas. So we thought if we can provide a cost-effective product to deliver several Gbps to that area then there is an economic and commercial solution.’
Bluwan believes it can deliver speeds and capacity at 20% to 90% lower capex and opex than fibre or competing wireless technologies. It estimates that a service provider can become cash flow positive with 100,000 users within two years or less. The small size of its antennas means less equipment, lower roof and mast rental costs and a faster time to market, all of which provide both capex and opex savings.
Bluwan’s solution is designed to complement or substitute existing carrier and mobile network operator fibre, ADSL/copper, WiMAX and 3G/HSPA deployments. It is also designed to be future proof for LTE.
‘It is a self-backhauling access solution,’ says Sanyal. ‘You don’t need local fibre access; at present that can be 30km-40km away. We provide a multi-Gbps bridge and create wireless arteries to businesses and residences at up to 100Mbps through a point-to-multipoint network to locations up to 10km away.’
Customers need to have a small rooftop antenna, which feeds into a coaxial cable. The coaxial cable is then split into the Bluwan router providing IP internet access and into the TV set top box. Bluwan has designed an all IP and all Ethernet solution, so that customers need no proprietary equipment other than the Bluwan receiver and modem/router.
‘The main reason for choosing a point-to-multipoint solution is that it also saves money. This is highly relevant to service providers,’ says Sanyal.
‘If you’re looking to backhaul multiple mobile base stations using point-to-point solutions from a single point of presence, you’re going to need one antenna for every base station. With FTTA, these base stations can be fed with a single antenna. For example, if you’re backhauling eight mobile base stations, switching over to FTTA would reduce the footprint by seven antennas down to one. That’s a lot of savings per site on mast rental and maintenance. Less dishes also results in minimised visual pollution.’
Bluwan believes it can offer network operators a strong last-mile access solution. ‘WiMAX and the like can provide great access technology, but they don’t have any inherent capacity,’ says Sanyal. ‘In the final third, the last tens of miles, you need a point of presence for the last access point to be effective.’
The problem with WiMAX, argues Sanyal, is that it is a small pipe and if the fibre is still far away it will hit a capacity bottleneck very quickly. What Bluwan’s solution offers is a branch for a fat pipe, and one that keeps it fat all the way to the end user. Its pipes are fat enough to provide local access at 20Mbps or more for services such as HDTV (or Integrated Digital TV when that becomes available).
All TV providers need to do is transmit their channels to Bluwan’s central base station just once and Bluwan then transmits the service over its terrestrial network. ‘It’s much more efficient as the distance is so much shorter than transmitting from a satellite in space,’ says Sanyal.
The signal is transmitted to individual homes via the customer’s broadband dish, which also acts as a TV dish. ‘The result is that the operator gets a very cost-effective triple-play solution,’ says Sanyal.
He argues that these kinds of service can boost ARPU from £20 per month for broadband-only to £50 with triple-play services. ‘Potentially it is a big ARPU generator to rural areas,’ he says.
‘Areas of 5% broadband penetration today will go up to 40%-50%, but done at a fraction of the cost. We can test areas at low risk and see with some marketing what the take up is likely to be. If it doesn’t work in that area we can take down the radio equipment and put it somewhere else,’ adds Sanyal.
Bluwan’s current strategy is to talk to organisations holding relevant spectrum licences, such as UK Broadband and T-Mobile in the UK and O2 in the Czech Republic. It is conducting a number of trials at the moment, including one in Paris and another with Orange in Slovakia.
Bluwan does, as Sanyal concedes, have an interesting marketing dilemma in that its solution is both a last-mile high-speed wireless broadband solution and a 3G/4G backhaul solution.
But in pioneering the use of Q and Ku band spectrum it does appear to have come up with a solution that not only provides excellent bandwidth performance, but is also very scalable. It should allow operators to manage bandwidth requirements and scale up their networks in a cost-effective way as consumer demand grows.