Many factors affect the total cost of ownership (TCO) in wireless networks. While some of those factors are beyond your control, others can be controlled by making the right choices in network infrastructure. I’m writing a series of blogs focused on an often overlooked consideration that can significantly decrease overall TCO – transmission lines featuring aluminum instead of all-copper. They offer immediate and long-term cost savings, but only if properly constructed. 

It’s common knowledge that the cost of copper, as a raw material, is volatile. Over just the last two years, copper prices increased dramatically. There were some temporary dips, but the reality is copper consumption in developing nations continues, despite the supply remaining constricted. That’s a perfect combination for driving up costs. 

The key component and biggest contributor to the cost of a traditional transmission line is, of course, copper. Copper traditionally has been used for both the inner and outer conductors. As copper prices rise, so does the cost of the transmission line that relies on copper as its major component. Given the sheer number of transmission lines deployed in wireless networks, even a small uptick in cost can have a serious impact on the total spend for a network. We analyzed a major U.S. operator and discovered that if it had made a simple swap from copper to aluminum transmission lines just one year ago, it could have saved well over $6 million by the end of that year. 

Do transmission lines have to use copper in order to offer the electrical and mechanical performance expected by network designers? The consensus among transmission line manufacturers, and an ever-growing list of wireless operators, is that aluminum is a legitimate alternative to copper. In fact, more than 100 million feet of HELIAX FXL cable, which features an aluminum outer conductor, already has been installed by wireless operators in every part of the world. Nearly every major vendor in the industry now offers aluminum cable products. What’s more, aluminum as a conductor offers tangible cost savings – raw copper is approximately three times more expensive than raw aluminum. 

What are the tradeoffs? Admittedly, aluminum has lower direct current conductivity and is softer than copper. At the same time, aluminum offers a lighter weight and more flexibility. That makes it a great material to use for a transmission line’s outer conductor, while maintaining the use of copper as an inner conductor. Performance of such dual-metal cables with an aluminum outer conductor can be as good as, or even better than, that of traditional copper cables. It all depends on how the aluminum transmission lines are constructed. 

Next time, I’ll discuss specific cable construction techniques that have led to the success of such dual metal transmission lines. Meanwhile, we look forward to seeing many of our customers at CTIA WIRELESS 2012 in New Orleans to discuss this and other industry challenges and opportunities.

What is your viewpoint on these cables?

About the Author

Mike Schaefer

Mike Schaefer is a product line manager in the HELIAX Cable Products group, with 20 years experience in the wireless industry. He holds a bachelor’s degree in management, a professional development certificate in organizational leadership and an MBA in Marketing.

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