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Can 5G Backhaul Itself?

The movie Inception, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, features characters going into dream worlds, and then going into dream worlds within those dream worlds and then dream worlds within those dream worlds — until you can barely remember what’s going on.

Will 5G be the same way?

Yes, there is a parallel between 5G and the movie Inception, but you’ll have to stick with me here because we’re going to get a bit technical. But I promise it will be worth it, in the end (and hopefully the end of this article will be more satisfying than the spinning top at the end of Inception).

Let’s start at the beginning: 5G is all about a new wireless technology that transmits data really fast between a cell tower and a phone, right? That’s true but equally important to 5G is what that cell tower is connected to — that’s called backhaul. After all, it’s that backhaul connection that plays a big role in how your phone ultimately reaches Facebook’s servers or Netflix’s CDN.

Most of the time, at least in this country, that cell tower routes (backhauls) the traffic it collects within its coverage area through a fiber running between the tower and a nearby switching center. Once the traffic hits that switching center, it’s then routed to its destination along the nation’s core Internet backbone. Think of it like driving around a city until you get onto the interstate.

Now here’s where Inception kicks in: What if that cell tower didn’t need a fiber connection? What if it just beamed its traffic to the switching center wirelessly? Dreams within dreams.

And then what if that switching center was actually located on a satellite? Or a balloon? Dreams within dreams within dreams!

Now, I don’t want to go too far along this line of reasoning, mainly because there aren’t many network technicians who do — at least in the United States. But in other countries? The story is a little different.

According to a report last year by Ericsson, 40% of backhaul connections are expected to be based on wireless technology by 2023. And the standards group ETSI recently reported that wireless backhaul technologies serve more than 50% of the total cell site connections worldwide today. “They are apparently key solutions to address demands of mobile access networks at fast pace and in an economical way,” ETSI reported of those wireless backhaul links.

As with most things though, the situation is a little different here in the United States. “We estimate North America is close to 26%” in its usage of wireless backhaul, wrote Jimmy Yu of research firm Dell’Oro.

But how might that situation change as we move into a 5G future?―Light Reading

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