It is a supreme irony of the modern telecommunications world that the emergence of 5G is one of the best things that has happened for the fiber ecosystem.
The reason is simple: 5G will rely on bandwidth in the very high frequency multi-millimeter sector. Those signals are short range and easily disrupted by leaves, rain, filing cabinets and walls. Therefore, an extra layer of small cells must be inserted between end users and the macro base stations that have done the job until today.
The act of incorporating these small cells into the network is called densification. What is the main tool for making these connections? You guessed it: fiber. Two recent studies point to the need to use fiber to support 5G.
Early this month, CIR released research that points to the potential for optical networking in the 5G world. It is a complex game. The press release says that “5G is poised to dramatically increase the use of fiber optics in some parts of the network, while actually reducing the use of fiber in others.” The press release doesn’t separate backhaul uses from the other ways in which fiber will benefit by the move to 5G, but it clearly suggests that it is part of the equation.
The main takeaway is that 5G is early in its evolution and much more is unknown than known. An interesting point is that one way in which fiber companies will not benefit is by the shift of fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) approaches to fiber to the node (FTTN) and use of 5G instead of fiber for the last mile.
The other study is from Deloitte Consulting. The need for fiber to support 5G is part of a higher-level piece examination of the virtues of deep fiber builds in general in the United States. Indeed, the first rationale the firm mentions is supporting 5G:
Carriers will deploy many more small cells, “homespots,” and hotspots in higher frequency bands, with a coverage radius measured in meters rather than kilometers. Without more deep fiber, carriers will be unable to support the projected 4x increase in mobile data traffic between 2016 and 2021.
Deloitte calls for an investment of $130 billion to $150 billion in fiber infrastructure during the next five to seven years.
Fiber may not be the sole beneficiary. Another option is microwave, which is an old standby. Light Reading covers Cambridge Broadband Networks (CBNL), a provider in the United Kingdom. The value-proposition of microwave is clear, especially if fiber becomes overly expensive and in other ways difficult for operators to offer:
Deploying microwave is a far less costly undertaking than connecting thousands of basestations to fiber, of course. That explains why some operators without existing fixed-line assets have swung behind it. What's been in doubt is whether microwave has the muscle to support the much higher-speed connectivity that 5G will bring. Even with more advanced 4G services, some market watchers have questioned its capability.
Whether microwave will become a major 5G backhaul technology remains to be seen. Clearly, however, it has the potential to become a plan B for operators – right behind fiber.
Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at email@example.com and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.