The impressive tech behind MTN’s Supersonic Air Fibre

MTN’s Internet service provider Supersonic is the world’s first to employ a technology that aims to vastly improve fixed wireless access Internet in under-connected areas.

Launched in May 2021, Supersonic’s Air Fibre promised uncapped data packages with fibre-like reliability and speeds in areas that don’t have access to conventional broadband services.

These packages are available with speeds of 5/1Mbps, 10/2Mbps, 20/4Mbps, and 50/10Mbps.

They are priced between R399 and R799 per month — making them competitive compared to uncapped cellular and wireless ISP packages.

Air Fibre uses the Gigabit 1 (G1) radio system to get customers connected, developed by US startup Tarana Wireless.

Former Supersonic managing director Calvin Collet spearheaded the adoption of the G1 system.

He said the Internet service provider (ISP) acquired the exclusive rights to the tech and became the first operator in the world to launch the product commercially.

The team behind G1 has 26 PhDs between them from respected universities, including Stanford, Berkeley University, and MIT.

Bloomberg recently reported the company reached a valuation of $1 billion by March 2022, more than double what it was worth in May 2021.

Traditionally, fixed wireless access (FWA) is a go-to option in areas with no fixed options like fibre or where mobile network connectivity is insufficient or costly, such as in rural communities.

While mobile network operators have greater coverage than fibre, most cannot provide uncapped offerings without severe limitations.

Because capacity in the form of radio frequency spectrum is limited, they impose stringent usage thresholds to avoid overloading their networks.

Tarana calls its system “next-generation FWA”, explaining that the G1 system gets around these limitations with beamforming technology.

Tarana uses unlicensed spectrum similar to Wi-Fi, which is susceptible to interference from other devices such as IoT sensors and radios used by security companies.

However, Tarana says its G1 radios offer long-range and high capacity even in cases where obstructions and existing communication on unlicensed spectrum might interfere.

Its beamforming technology intelligently finds and switches to the best signal. It can also aggregate multiple channels.

The basic architecture combines cellular radio access with a fixed network architecture.

Firstly, compact base nodes connected to fibre backhaul are fitted to MTN’s cell towers.

These come in an integrated package that includes antennas, public addresses, digital signal processing, managed Ethernet switching, and 10G optical network interfaces.

Each base node can communicate with up to 256 remote nodes installed at customer sites within the coverage area.

The customer’s remote node is an even smaller rectangular unit that is powered and provides a connection to the home via a single Ethernet cable.

Basic G1 system architecture

Up to four base nodes can be installed at each site, per 80MHz of available unlicensed spectrum.

That provides a maximum potential user base of 1,024, with a combined 9.6Gbps throughput potential.

Assuming maximum capacity on a single tower, each could have a consistent 9Mbps connection if subscribers all downloaded a big file simultaneously.

If all the customers in an area chose Supersonic’s 50Mbps package, a tower would be able to support 192 subscribers at peak load.

According to Tarana Wireless, each link can have a theoretical throughput of 800Mbps.

Possible coverage area for scenarios using 80MHz of spectrum in the 3GHz and 5GHz bands. In South Africa, the system uses 5.8GHz spectrum.

Tarana said another benefit of is G1 radios is that they are easier to install than previous FWA equipment because they use autoconvergent beamforming on both ends.

The radios are non-line-of-sight capable, meaning they only have to be pointed roughly in the direction of the base node.

Tarana believes the system is suitable for cities and rural areas.

“With multi-km range, even in 5GHz, large metro markets can be penetrated quickly to forestall targeted competitive response — with typically 75% fewer towers than prior FWA solutions,” the company states.

“With tall towers in rural markets, the very broad (as in, many-mile) coverage they enable our [base nodes] to deliver is already helping digital divide initiative spending achieve its goals much more quickly and cost-efficiently.”

Now read: Wi-Fi 6E useless in South Africa without more spectrum

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The impressive tech behind MTN’s Supersonic Air Fibre