Wireless vs Fiber Backhaul Networks: Which is Better?
The average American household consumes approximately 190 gigabytes of data per month on their home internet connection and around 22 gigabytes on their mobile connection during the same time span. [i][ii]
While these numbers may seem incredible, data usage across the states is about to skyrocket with the advent of 5G and a whole slew of new IoT devices hitting the market. To remedy growing concerns over network congestion and instability, wireless providers are looking to not only upgrade their cell sites, but also the underlying infrastructure that connects these sites to the main data centers that power the internet.
This underlying infrastructure is known as backhaul (a term derived from the trucking industry) and without a well-constructed network backhaul infrastructure, it will be difficult to future-proof current networks against rising bandwidth demands, making this a vital consideration for the future accessibility of the internet.
What is Backhaul and Why is It Important?
For data to move from one point to another on the internet, there needs to be a medium that allows these points to interface with each other.
If we think about the internet as a kind of transportation system, then we can equate internet backhaul to the roads and highways which allow us to get from one point to another.
By using this analogy, we can easily see why internet backhaul is critically important to the growth and stability of the internet: if the roads of the internet are not built to handle influxes of traffic, or are built in a way that does not make efficient use of different connection points, then the end result will be a poor experience for the end-user.
A backhaul network is affected in nearly the same way: when the network becomes overloaded with traffic, the end user begins to experience issues such as packet loss, network jitter & high-latency. In an increasingly mobile-first world where many professionals and content creators rely on fast connection speeds, this sort of performance decrease can absolutely tank productivity.
This threat is exactly why so many Internet Services Providers (ISPs) are taking a long look at their current networks to see where improvements can be made. However, there’s a lot to consider before any plans are put into effect, as there are varying forms of backhaul that can be implemented, each providing a unique set of pros and cons.
Types of Backhaul
Sticking to our analogy of backhaul as roads, the materials that connect different points on the internet can greatly impact the speed at which data is transferred—just like materials used in the construction of a road can greatly affect the quality (and thus top speed) of the ride.
Breaking it down, backhaul usually consists of two types: wired and wireless.
Wired backhaul, such as copper, fiber, ethernet and coaxial, is what typically comes to mind when we think about internet backhaul.
These cables have been used in networks of all types around the world for decades, and barring any unexpected advances in wireless backhaul, will continue to be used in future high-speed networks as well.
This is because wired backhaul is second to none when it comes to network stability and performance; however, wired backhaul does come with some costly pitfalls.
Advantages of Wired Backhaul
Compared to mobile backhaul, ISPs and end users accessing the internet through wired backhaul will benefit from more stable connection speeds since network interference is less of an issue.
Additionally, the max network speed of a system built on, say, fiber, is considerably faster than what can be achieved on a wireless network. In fact, researchers around the world are constantly setting and smashing records for max data transfer speeds over fiber optic lines, and for now, there appears to be no upper limit to how fast these systems can get. [iii]
Disadvantages of Wired Backhaul
While there are disadvantages to wired connections, the one that developers are most concerned about is the price of implementation.
Building a wired backhaul network is expensive, and most developers and potential customers will seek to avoid it at all costs.
In fact, building a fiber optic network, or even just extending one, can cost tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in construction fees alone. And once the construction is finished, there are still service costs associated with providing connectivity, such as purchasing the necessary fiber lighting equipment and performing maintenance as needed. [iv]
As such, if an area has a network need, but it’s been determined that it would be too costly to simply install new cabling, then wireless backhaul is looked at as the favorable alternative solution.
In cases where tearing open the ground to lay wired backhaul is too expensive, wireless backhaul is quickly becoming a viable alternative for densifying network capacity.
Unlike wired backhaul, cellular backhaul uses microwaves and radio waves to transmit signals between different access points, like the smartphones and laptops that we carry with us every day.
And by examining this characteristic on the surface, it is clear that wireless backhaul may have some key advantages over wired backhaul.
After all, if you could negate the need for roads, like if someone offered you a flying car, you’d probably think your days of sitting in traffic were finally over.
Unfortunately, things aren’t so simple.
Advantages of Wireless Backhaul
Because wireless backhaul systems don’t necessarily rely on a network comprised of fiber or copper cabling (some still rely on fiber for main hub stations), wireless backhaul can be installed and put into operation much faster and more affordably when compared to wired systems.
Disadvantages of Wireless Backhaul
However, wireless backhaul is highly susceptible to interference originating from a wide variety of sources, such as adverse weather conditions, other small cells, and macrocells as well.
Additionally, network speeds on wireless backhaul range from 200-300 Mbps, which is markedly slower than what can be achieved on wired backhaul networks, where something like fiber can run as fast as 1-60 Gbps.
Nevertheless, wireless backhaul is still a good option for developers who are looking to expand network capacity without the hefty upfront cost of laying new cables, as many of these drawbacks can be mitigated through strategic placement of antennas, or by offloading users from one cellular antenna to the next.
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