by Caroline Gabriel
Backhaul vendors are grabbing far more headlines this year as operators wake up to the massive shortfalls their current systems will suffer as they move to mobile broadband. Carriers round the world are looking to a mixture of fiber and microwave to support exploding mobile data usage and denser networks, and to reduce total cost of ownership compared to leased lines. This is throwing the spotlight on microwave specialists, not just the giants like Harris Stratex, NEC and Ericsson, but a wave of innovative start-ups focused on IP/Ethernet, and the opportunity presented by new-style operators like Clearwire, looking to gigabit data rates and unfettered mobile broadband services.
DragonWave, Clearwire’s key supplier, debuted on the Nasdaq exchange this week, in an initial offering that will raise almost $130m – one of the largest for a Canadian firm this decade. DragonWave has been listed since 2007 on the Toronto Stock Exchange, but reached profitability this year, driving its shares from $1 in January to as high as $12.10.
Another innovative microwave backhaul specialist is Silicon Valley-based Exalt Communications, which was founded in 2004 by veterans of companies like Western Multiplex. It initially focused on the high end, and in March announced its GigE gigabit Ethernet platform, in the wake of raising a series C round of $15m in February. Now it is moving into the lower end of the market, targeting WISPs, smaller operators (or large cellcos’ smaller cells) and government or enterprise users. It is taking on the giants of this segment, Motorola (with the former Orthogon product) and Radwin (part of the RAD Group in Israel).
Its ExtendAir backhaul system is designed to be lightweight, compact and cost effective, to appeal to public safety agencies and smaller providers – which generate revenues and cashflow more quickly than their tier one counterparts – and to give microwave sceptics a low risk chance to try out the technology, and then hopefully move up the product range.
ExtendAir supports point-to-point links to a distance of 20 miles, with “moderate” capacity of 100Mbps to 200Mbps, at a cost from under $5,000 to $8,000 per link. CEO and founder Amir Zoufonoun says the product will compete with the Motorola PTP500 and Radwin2000. Its key differentiator will be guaranteed ‘five nines’ performance through use of point-to-point, line of sight systems, whereas he says the rival platforms use OFDM and near-line of sight to achieve a constant ‘best effort’ connection, but with lower and less consistent performance.