Data through the dust

Bahrain's new telecoms service provider needed a network that could offer high bandwidth to corporate customers and cope with disruptive weather conditions. Daniel Stanton finds out how 2Connect did it.

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By  Daniel Stanton Published  April 2, 2006

|~|lightpointe200.jpg|~|AlShirawi: First outdoor wireless product to achieve 99.999%.|~|As markets in the Middle East liberalise, new generation service providers are having to come up with affordable, yet innovative and sometimes niche solutions that will allow them to differentiate themselves and win business from the incumbent telco.

Bahrain recently opened up its telecommunications market to competition, creating opportunities but also a tough task for newcomers. The first independent operator, 2Connect, was faced with the choice of leasing the existing telecommunications infrastructure or developing its own, a process that could have been expensive and lengthy. "We want to control our destiny, we want to control the reliability we give our customers," says Fahad AlShirawi, the managing director of 2Connect. "If we lease a line from the incumbent, we're still giving our customers the same problems." Having decided to target large corporate customers by offering business services like broadband data, telephony, virtual private networking and video conferencing, 2Connect wanted a reliable, high bandwidth network that could be implemented quickly. Optical wireless was attractive, but Bahrain's terrain and weather conditions posed difficulties.

"Bahrain has issues with fog, issues with sandstorms, and scintillation because it's surrounded by water," says Richard Leyland, EMEA marketing manager for Lightpointe.

"Because of that environment they thought a free space optics-based solution using lasers would perhaps not be appropriate."

Any solution using lasers would probably not be able to offer a continuous connection because weather conditions would often break the line of sight.

"We could have used microwave and it would have been reliable, but, first of all, regulation for microwave is not in place, so microwave is, as it stands, illegal; second, it does not give the same latency performance," says AlShirawi.

"The latency on microwave is much higher, interference really affects the quality of the calls. With the lasers, you're either on or off, there are no bad calls."

Lightpointe's new dual path technology presented a way to offer uninterrupted connections and a high bandwidth.
"It's an optical link with back-up RF and a switch to manage the connection," says Leyland. "If there's fog, the optical wireless link suddenly doesn't have the optimum conditions. The switch immediately goes over to the radio link and holds it in the radio link until conditions improve. Then it goes back to the optical link with no downtime."

During the period that the connection switches to RF, the bandwidth is reduced to 72Mbps, rather than a maximum of 1Gbps available on the optical link, but the connection is maintained with no disruption to the user. "You're not going to notice anything," says Leyland. "It's a smooth, seamless sub-second switch. It often loses no packets whatsoever."

He adds: "Various conditions mean that you'll almost never have 100% network uptime. No one has 100% uptime, even cable. The target is always five nines, 99.999%, and this is the first outdoor wireless product we're aware of that achieves that."

2Connect has so far installed 20 outdoor, point-to-point wireless links throughout Manama to provide local businesses with secure, high-capacity voice, data and video connections.

"We installed Lightpointe on a MPLS (Multi Protocol Label Switching) backbone and used Cisco 7304s for the nodes for the end routers, basically we aggregated and routed wherever it needs to go," says AlShirawi. "Using the mix of technologies, using IP and the Lightpointe lasers we were able to provide full telecommunication services all over the country to any of our corporate customers."

2Connect was able to gain access to the rooftop of the capital's tallest skyscraper, which acts as the centre of its optical network. The company says it keeps the Lightpointe product in stock so that it can be quickly deployed whenever a new connection is requested.

Each building joining the network only requires one optical connection. All companies in the building can be linked to the network at less expense and effort.

"Each link, which is two linkheads on two destinations, on two points, origination and termination, costs about US$25,000 and then you have to factor in the price of the switch and the price of installing it," says AlShirawi. "The overall cost of connectivity is about US$30,000."

The Lightpointe solution has already delivered a complete return on investment, based on the cost of US$10,000 per month to lease lines from the incumbent operator, Batelco.

The implementation was not without its difficulties, AlShirawi explains. "It's not an easy technology to install," he says.

"The particular units were new on the market so we had to discover pretty much everything about them. The technology was new in the country so it took a while for the regulator to allow its use, and of course you have to work really hard to get rooftop rights."

However, the optical wireless links have enabled 2Connect to win some large corporate customers who need high bandwidth and reliability.

"It's really delivering high performance, all our customers are very very happy with it," says AlShirawi. "A lot of our customers have requested upgrades from the 100Mbps links to the 1Gbps links."

The technology is living up to 2Connect's expectations, but AlShirawi would like to see future products allow connections over a longer distance as his business continues to grow.

"I would really like to see the supplier delivering longer range links, especially on the 1Gbps side," he says. "We don't, for reliability's sake, deploy more than 2.5 to 2.8km. We would like to see this extended to about 6 or 7km."

With a resilient, high quality network to offer, 2Connect has found itself more than able to compete with the incumbent telecoms provider for large corporate customers.

"Whenever we enter a bid whereby the enterprise customer requests our presence and the presence of the incumbent, the incumbent really doesn't bother showing up," says AlShirawi. "And I think that says it all."||**||

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