Case Study: Hilbert Communications upgrades wireless capacity and reliability while slashing costs with Exalt

Hilbert Communications is a network operator with a wireless subsidiary focused on delivering voice and data services to rural areas in Wisconsin and Michigan. The company partners with AT&T Mobility to pick up roaming users who head into the countryside from cities such as Green Bay, Madison and Milwaukee.

Hilbert is based in Green Bay, but it has grown rapidly through aggressive deployment of cellular base stations in rural areas such as Calumet, Sauk, Columbia and Douglas counties. In the past year, it has ignited a new growth phase with BugNet, the first broadband wireless data service available to its subscribers. When the company surveyed prospective customers at a local county fair in the summer of 2008, it found that virtually all of them were very excited by the potential for broadband wireless since they were still using dial-up Internet connections. The company has since amassed a sizeable subscriber base from sparsely populated farming areas.

Since 2007, Hilbert has rapidly scaled-up its wireless network – the underpinning of its roaming business – with a commitment to maintaining the highest levels of customer service. But as it has grown, the company discovered cellular site backhaul to be a weak link in the original design of its network. Hilbert has used terrestrial T1 connections to link roughly half of its 200 cell sites to its core network. Unfortunately, the connections are neither reliable nor robust enough to handle the growing load from new subscribers, and with the addition of broadband data services, the company needed to provide IP-based backhaul as well as traditional TDM.

“The leased T1 lines were turning out to be the least reliable part of our network,” says Kevin Kluge, director of network design for Hilbert Communications. “Our immediate need was to improve the reliability of the backhaul between the towers and our fiber-fed aggregation points, but we also realized that with the broadband mobile data rollout, we would need IP data service and a lot more capacity.”

Microwave backhaul seemed like the ideal solution because it can deliver both IP connectivity and more T1 capacity, and it would also free Hilbert from spending $700-$1,500 per month per tower for T1 lines. “Microwave allows us to own the whole network and eliminate a lot of recurring costs,” says Kluge.

Initially, the company tried microwave systems offered by major cellular infrastructure vendors, but these proved to be less reliable than Kluge had hoped. That’s when he turned to Exalt. “We tried a lot of different radios before we went to Exalt, but Exalt simply has a better product and we’ve standardized on it,” he says. “The other systems we tried seemed to be more enterprise-class systems, whereas Exalt’s systems are carrier-grade all the way.”

Hilbert began deploying Exalt systems for the 5 GHz band in 2007, and currently has about 40 of these in operation. The systems each support up to four T1 lines and up to 200 megabits per second (Mbps) of Ethernet data. As currently configured, they carry four T1 lines and from 10 to 50 Mbps of Ethernet data over distances of up to 20 miles.

“We like the idea that we have a capacity buffer built in,” says Kluge. “We can perform a software upgrade remotely to go up to 200 megabits per second per link if we need to.”

Every Exalt system performs flawlessly, and Kluge likes the remote configuration tools that make it easy to fine-tune frequencies for each of the radios to optimize performance and reliability. Exalt’s unique CarrierTDD™ and anti-interference technology features also enhance reliability, enabling Exalt to guarantee throughput on each link with 99.999% link reliability.

Based on his success with the Exalt systems configured for the 5 GHz frequency band, Kluge has begun using Exalt systems configured for the 11 GHz frequency band for network backbone deployments. These links can also deliver up to 200 Mbps per link.

Today, Kluge is continuing toward his goal of eliminating all of the T1 connections in the network. By moving to Exalt-based T1 and Ethernet, he can support significant subscriber growth on both the GSM and WiMAX networks. The early success of the WiMAX network in Calumet County has prompted neighboring Columbia and Sauk counties to request the service in those areas as well.

“Exalt systems configured for 5 GHz make it easy to swap out T1 connections very quickly with a more reliable and higher-capacity system that handles both TDM and IP, while the Exalt systems configured for 11 GHz give us the throughput we need for backbone services on the WiMAX portions of the network,” says Kluge.

After disappointments suffered with other manufacturers’ microwave backhaul products, Kevin Kluge and Hilbert Communications have found a microwave company they can rely on to execute their business plans. By leveraging Exalt’s rapid scalability and carrier-class reliability, Hilbert and its BugNet service are destined for continued success.

“We tried a lot of different radios before we went to Exalt, but Exalt simply has a better product and we‘ve standardized on it. “The other systems seemed to be more enterprise-class systems, whereas Exalt’s systems are carrier-grade all the way.”
–Kevin Kluge, director of network planning, Hilbert Communications

Challenges

  • Improve reliability of backhaul connections and reduce recurring costs.
  • Enable TDM and IP connectivity for WiMAX data services.
  • Provide easy scalability to expand traffic as subscriber base grows.

Solutions

  • Deploy Exalt systems for reliable throughput over ranges of up to 20 miles.
  • Use Exalt’s Ethernet transport to carry up to 200 Mbps of IP-based traffic while supporting up to four T1 lines of native TDM per cell site.
  • Bring the whole network under company control by eliminating leased T1 lines.

This article appeared on RCRWireless.com on February 18, 2010 – click to visit original article.

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