FSO technology: Can it help African mobile operators to deal with an increasing demand for data bandwidth?

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Last week at Africa COM, the smartphones were out on show - BlackBerrys, iPhones, HTC, Nokia and Samsung smartphones, you name them. They were joined by the soon commercially available, Ideos, an Android smartphone that Huawei launched publicly during the event. With the growing number of “data guzzlers” mobile phones, African mobile operators which are operating 3G networks or about the launch one, will increasingly have to face the challenge of fulfilling high data bandwidth demand from end users. Isabelle Gross spoke to Neil Kelly, the CEO of PW Comms about free space optical (FSO) and how this technology can help to relieve data bottlenecks in mobile operators’ networks.

“FSO is an electronic piece of fibre link in the air without the physical cable”, explains Neil Kelly.  It operates on infrared frequency below the visible spectrum and it is licence free. It is a similar technology than the one that is used with remote control to operate TV sets. Since it is a light wave, there are no security issues and network breaches like with unlicensed radio and microwave technologies.

According to Neil Kelly, FSO technology has been round for 10 years but it is only in the last couple of years that it has gained some traction with the increasing number of Internet enabled smartphones. Today, mobile operators are required to shift massive amount of bandwidth to data users while at the same time they are seeing their ARPUs decreasing. FSO provides a cost-effective solution in this space with a rapid speed of deployment. The system can be deployed in a couple of hours if necessary enabling mobile operators to deliver more bandwidth at the local point of presence. FSO technology competes with other backhaul technology like fibre cables or microwaves but it is much more cost-effective than fibre cables. The average cost of laying 1 mile of fibre cables is around US$45,000. FSO costs a 1/10 of that price.

PW Comms is a UK based company and has started commercialising FSO solutions four years ago. Neil Kelly’s company now operates in 28 countries among them four African countries: Egypt, Morocco, Algeria and Kenya. The company sell its products through local resellers which can carry out the installation and provide the maintenance services. Their customer base includes telecoms operators, data providers like ISP for their last mile connectivity as well as IT companies offering network integration solutions.

In Egypt, PW Comms has supplied mobile operator Orascom with several hundred links for data backhaul from base stations located in urban but also in rural areas. In Morocco and Kenya, the company has deployed FSO solutions for respectively Maroc Telecom and Safaricom. FSO can carry bandwidth between 2MB and 155MB between two points up to 4Km apart and a capacity of 1GB between two points up to 1Km apart. As the distance affects the capacity that FSO links can carry, it is a technology well suited for urban areas where it is easier and more cost-effective to install such systems on the top of roof buildings than to dig up the roads.

Like any technology, FSO has some limitations inherent to the technology itself. The major one for FSO is related to the quality of the air which impacts on the distance and the bandwidth capacity of the light beam. Foggy weather conditions are particularly bad because the small condensed water molecules in the air are of the size to create reflections interfering with the infrared beams. But according to Neil Kelly, tropical climates with heavy rain downpours during the rainy season are not a problem. PC Comms has deployed its solution in Malaysia and the system performs well even under monsoon conditions. Extreme cold or hot temperatures are not a problem either. FSO also requires line of sight between two points but the technology is flexible enough to support more complex network architectures. Through the creation of a resilient FSO ring servicing star topology network accesses, then high bandwidth solutions can be delivered through to remote users easily and quickly. 

Besides being a cost-effective last mile solution, FSO is also highly secure. Neil Kelly reckons that it not possible to tap in the laser generated light beam unless you put another FSO unit on top of the existing one. The infrared beam is also not visible and therefore it won’t attract the attention of by-passers. This is the reason why the technology is being used by the army and secret services around the world.

With more and more users hooked on their smartphones checking Facebook or other social networks or using location based services, mobile operators are forced to invest more in their data network. Expanding physical infrastructure is expensive and time consuming when FSO technology can provide a quick extension to access point where data demand is on the increase. Despite the economic downturn, PW Comms has been doing well in the last years with an annual turnover growth of over 30%. As Neil Kelly explains, smartphone users expect more and more the same data speed on their phone than what they currently get on their laptop/desktop. Are African mobile operators gearing up for this coming “data tsunami”?

For further information on FSO solutions you can visit PW Comms’ website at http://www.pwcomms.co.uk/ or drop an email to Neil Kelly on neilk@pwcomms.co.uk