By: Juan Prieto, InfoVista

For service providers, it’s no secret that mobile data traffic has exploded over the last few years.

AT&T, for example, in one of its FCC filings related to its ill-fated attempt to acquire T-Mobile USA, cited capacity constraints as a chief motivation behind the merger.  The company noted that the smartphones that had become ubiquitous on its network consumed 24 times the data of conventional handsets, and that overall mobile data consumption had increased by 8,000 percent between 2007 and 2010.

And complex handsets are only one component of the growing bandwidth capacity demands. Tablets, which are capable of consuming many times the amount of data used by smartphones, and other data-capable devices are continuing to grow in popularity and complexity.  In addition, machine-to-machine connections, cloud computing, and other trends in communications are likewise escalating demands on existing infrastructure.

This trend is likely to continue.  Cisco’s Visual Networking Index (VNI) reports that global mobile data traffic grew 2.3-fold in 2011, which was the fourth consecutive year in which mobile traffic at least doubled.  In addition, the VNI reports that only 12 percent of handsets around the world are smartphones, but those handsets account for 82 percent of global handset traffic.  As the number of handsets grows, there’s enormous potential for additional mobile data growth.  With this in mind, Cisco anticipates an 18-fold increase in mobile data traffic between 2011 and 2016. 

This unbelievable amount of data has to be carried somehow, which makes the necessity of a comprehensive backhaul strategy that much more clear. 

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Why Ethernet?

Furthermore, Ethernet has emerged as the technology of choice, over legacy TDM.  According to telecommunications research firm Infonetics, over 100 network operators are actively deploying IP/Ethernet-only backhaul to carry all traffic, including data and voice.  In just one year, between late 2009 and late 2010, Infonetics says that the percentage of network operators planning all-IP/Ethernet backhaul, as opposed to hybrid or TDM networks, had increased from 45 percent to 65 percent. 

Perhaps most tellingly, Ovum research reports that by 2015, 88 percent of backhaul connections will be carried over Ethernet. 

There are three main motivations behind this trend towards Ethernet backhaul:

  • Wireless data traffic is exploding. In addition to the estimates from Cisco mentioned above, reports from Ericsson estimate a tenfold data increase between 2011 and 2016, and wireless providers around the world are reporting growth rates in excess of 100 percent per year.  Smartphones have obviously played a role in this massive acceleration, as have tablets (which consume five times the bandwidth of an average smartphone, Cisco says).  However, there’s also a major behavioral component to the growth as more users clamor for bandwidth-intensive social media and video applications.

  • Mobile network operators (MNOs) are simultaneously moving towards 4G technologies, with LTE taking root in markets around the globe. Research firm Maravedis estimates that by 2016, there will be 350 million LTE subscribers.

  • The costs associated with carrying voice and data from cell sites are in great need of reduction, and the cost-per-bit of carrying this traffic via Ethernet is drastically reduced compared to TDM. Infonetics estimates that Ethernet backhaul connections are an average of six times cheaper than their TDM equivalents.



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