This Issue of Africa Telecoms is focusing on Backhaul as a subsector of the Telecoms Market in Africa. What do you think the most challenging area is for Mobile Operators in Africa when it comes to Backhaul?
Mobile operators in Africa are facing the same issues as network operators in many parts of the world: building their networks to meet the quality of experience their customers expect while earning the profits their shareholders demand. From the vendor perspective, it’s whether you make your customers money or save them money. Backhaul is frequently seen as a spiraling expense, we believe we have a solution that gets that situation under control at a cost that is very attractive compared to the alternatives.
CBNL is also stated at having 30 deployments around the world and helps 2G,3G, HSPA, Wimax and LTE Networks. How many of the deployments are in Africa? Can you provide further insight into your operations in Africa?
Certainly, our presence in Africa has grown considerably over the last three years. We currently have five network deployments with MTN in countries including Rwanda, Nigeria and South Africa. All in all, we have eight networks operating in Africa including deployments with Vodacom, Gateway and Inwi. We also recently renewed our framework agreement with MTN group which was announced in October last year. Each of MTN’s operating companies now has access to a range of pre-approved VectaStar microwave backhaul equipment which has been validated for a range of applications, including backhaul of 2G, WiMAX and 3G network traffic, and the provision of broadband Internet access services to businesses. The FIFA World Cup was a significant catalyst for growth of South Africa’s ICT and mobile telecoms sector. Operators have made substantial infrastructure investments and service upgrades that will benefit subscribers for years to come. In particular, HSPA+ has given consumers significant improvements in data speeds.
CBNL states that it is a market leader in Point to Multi Point backhaul solutions. Can you explain the differences between the CBNL products and traditional solutions?
There are a few fundamental differences between our products in comparison to traditional solutions such as Point-to-Point (PtP), but let me briefly highlight how VectaStar works. Our technology uses transmission architecture similar to broadcast standards, where a central hub communicates with a number of remote terminals within a sector. Spectrum and capacity is shared across the sector giving operators the flexibility to manage network resources and provision those resources to a certain cellsite, if and when, required. This is inherently different to PtP which uses two radios per connection on a one-to-one basis. Spectrum is tied to each of these connections and is unable to be reassigned to another cell site that maybe experiencing a higher footfall. Essentially VectaStar is different because it simplifies microwave backhaul networks, reducing the number of radios needed to create each sector, which in result makes them cheaper and faster to build and reduces backhaul costs by up to 60%.
At the end of 2010, CBNL had a major round of financing that was raised, and Graham Peel, CEO, stated that the financing would be used to drive product development as well as sales and support. Is Africa one of the regions that CBNL will be focusing on in 2011?
Absolutely, our growth plans include increasing the scale of our operations across Africa, particularly in the Sub-Saharan region and Nigeria. With mobile internet access in Africa growing exponentially and with many operators in the region deploying or looking to deploy 3G services over the next few years, CBNL has a strong opportunity to help operators manage and provision their enterprise access and backhaul networks for this increase in lumpy data traffic.
The ever-growing data market in Africa is a great opportunity for CBNL as backhaul becomes more and more important for network operators. Where does CBNL see this market moving to, and how is CBNL helping operators face the issues of mobile data backhaul?
You’re right there is a great opportunity. We’ve seen a huge amount of optimism from mobile operators in the uptake of mobile devices including tablets across Africa. Bringing ‘mobile to the masses’ in Africa has a significant upside for all concerned. For operators and device manufacturers, as well as all other companies involved in the installation and operation of the networks and services, there is obviously an opportunity for new revenue growth, as well as the economic benefit it will provide to a much wider community. To help operators meet the demand that this growth causes, our technology is ideal for African operators as it allows them to make efficient use of scarce spectrum resources and at the same time, ensure that provision is made for peak data throughput.
How does CBNL ensure the quality of service of data and/or voice running through its Microwave point to multipoint system?
VectaStar offers four priority classes which are numbered 0 (the highest), to 3 (the lowest) and each service is allocated to one class. Therefore, bandwidth is firstly offered to the highest priority class and the remaining bandwidth is then offered to the next class. Prioritisation is used in conjunction with Adaptive Modulation. All radio links suffer from fading and typically the longer the link and the higher the frequency, the more frequent the fading will be. Therefore, radio links are planned to take account of the inevitable fading to ensure that they are reliable in the presence of a fading environment. When they are properly designed, radio links can provide 99.999% availability. With seven levels of adaptive modulation built into VectaStar, the system ensures the best possible performance in all weather conditions.
How well does the CBNL Microwave systems integrate with existing legacy terrestrial networks?
VectaStar is actually a new topology for microwave backhaul. Therefore the most efficient way to integrate it with existing terrestrial microwave systems would be to use VectaStar as an overlay in dense urban situations. This overlay can also be applied to support the deployment of 3G networks throughout the region leaving traditional point to point microwave to deal with the rural situations where it is still efficient.
Does the CBNL Vectastar platform increase or decrease OPEX and CAPEX and what payback period can the operators expect?
It decreases both CAPEX and OPEX. It does this by reducing the amount of equipment that needs to be deployed – thereby reducing installation labour which is a major contributor to CAPEX. Once installed, VectaStar has a smaller footprint, reducing site and antenna space rental costs. It uses a lot less radio spectrum which reduces annual costs as well. It is difficult to give an exact ROI figure that applies to every situation, but we frequently find that the reduction in CAPEX and OPEX as well as the time to build the network is 50% less than the alternatives so you can see that the improvement in ROI is significant.
With Infrastructure sharing becoming more and more important internationally, does the Vectastar system allow for the potential of Mobile Operators sharing backhaul infrastructure?
Good question. It really depends on how the sharing is structured by operators. If they are using a common RAN the process of sharing is relatively simple for VectaStar to support. However, if the sharing is only site based then the different equipment at each site could present issues for any backhaul vendor. Our answer would be to work with operators to come up with the right solution-but it’s fair to say that we haven’t found a network that we can’t backhaul, yet.
Can the current price curve of mobile backhaul keep up with the cost of flash memory and broadband data to ensure that the end cost to consumers remains on a downward curve?
Absolutely, in all cases microwave capacity is growing faster than the aggregated traffic coming from cell sites. In fact, CBNL has been developing a new radio controller that will eventually achieve 1GB/s throughput per sector – with the first inclination doubling our current throughput level to 300mb/s. The biggest challenge for the industry is reducing the cost and time spent in building the backhaul network in the first place. That is an area where our product, VectaStar, excels: our product takes a fraction of the time to provision a connection when compared to the alternatives – enabling our customers to build-out their networks quickly and capture the market from their competitors.
Does the Vectastar system allow for the use of Carrier Grade Ethernet as well as Microwave transmission?
Yes it does. All our VectaStar platforms include Ethernet interfaces and offer throughput of 150mb/s. With the recent introduction of the VectaStar Radio Controller, based on a Gigabit Ethernet backplane supporting up to 10GB/s sustained operation, we will increase throughput to 1GB/s per sector.