Fiber optic vs. 5G wireless networks: A closer look at an emerging debate

5G is the fifth generation of wireless networking. And while 5G doesn’t exist yet — and won’t be available for widespread use until the 2020s — the performance goals it promises are unprecedented for wireless networks.

As a result, the projected performance of 5G has opened up a debate about whether fiber optic or 5G wireless networks will be better. But this debate is predicated on a false assumption: That, as 5G technology rolls out in coming years, it will replace fiber.

Rather, 5G wireless networks and fiber optic networks complement each other, together offering a more cohesive internet experience across fixed and mobile applications than either could alone. Without 5G, fiber would lack mobility. Without fiber, the revolutionary goals of 5G would simply be impossible.

In this article, we’ll define fiber optic and 5G wireless networks and explain how they complement each other. We’ll also briefly touch on how policymakers and business owners will influence the success — or failure — of the transition to 5G in the coming decade.

Fiber optic networks and their role in 5G

Fiber optic networks are a type of high-speed wireline network offering improved speed, security and bandwidth over legacy copper systems. Fiber optic technology has long been used in long-haul networks due to its high performance over long distances — fiber can travel as far as 40 miles without losing signal strength.

Now fiber is increasingly being used in metro and access networks instead of copper. And because copper can only carry a gigabit signal about 300 feet, many businesses choose to continue the fiber connection all the way to their premises — called a fiber to the premises (FTTP) configuration — to avoid losing signal strength. In essence, fiber optic networks are limited only by the technology used to transmit and receive signals.

In an ideal world, every phone, smart sensor and mobile device could be directly connected to the fiber backbone — but that would limit the mobility of the devices. That’s where 5G wireless network technology comes in. 5G networks will essentially be designed to bridge the short distance between a mobile device (as in 5G mobile services) or business (as in 5G fixed broadband) and the fiber backbone.

The evolution of wireless networks

Recently, we’ve been reaching the limits of current wireless network technology. Average mobile data usage has inched up steadily every month since 2014, mobile traffic is set to quadruple before 2021, and a user’s bandwidth is expected to grow nearly 50% every year according to Nielsen’s Law of Internet Bandwidth. A new solution is needed to keep up with these bandwidth and speed needs, and 5G may be the answer.

The first generation (1G) coincided with the introduction of cell phone technology, 2G introduced text messages and 3G allowed for cellular internet browsing. 4G was introduced in 2008, offering a marked improvement on network reliability and speeds as high as 100 megabytes-per-second (Mbps) — allowing for on-the-go video conferencing and gaming.

The predicted performance goals of 5G wireless networks blow previous wireless network generations out of the water. 5G wireless networks will provide nearly 100% network availability, less than 1 millisecond latency, 1,000 times the bandwidth and 10 gigabit-per-second (Gbps) speeds. 5G could potentially allow you to download a two-hour movie in 3.6 seconds. The same task takes about six minutes on 4G. But the key benefits span far beyond speed — 5G allows for a massive increase in connected devices at lower latency.

Time will tell if these lofty goals are met, as 5G standards are still being developed and 5G technology has yet to be deployed. 5G is expected to begin to roll out in 2019 and become widely available in the 2020s, first as a fixed wireless broadband solution and then as a mobile service akin to the 4G cellular technology we see today.

How 5G works: Moving from macro cells to small cells

4G macro cell towers relied on radio frequency spectrums, which were able to travel great distances — reducing the number of towers needed to serve an area — but were unable to achieve the growing speed, latency and bandwidth businesses will require in coming years. And adding more towers would be an expensive fix.

5G wireless networks will use higher frequency millimeter waves. The millimeter wave spectrum provides exponentially higher bandwidth with virtually no latency.

Unfortunately, millimeter waves can only travel about 250 feet. Because of this, 5G will force telecom companies to switch from the large cell towers to low cost, low power small cell sites — basically radios that will transmit and receive signals from devices within their small coverage area. Small cells are much cheaper than macro cell towers and require less power, allowing for a denser scattering of cells on streetlamps and buildings.

This 5G small cell model will bring the fiber backbone closer to the end user, allowing for use of higher frequency waves and vastly improving the quality of experience when using wireless devices. Indeed, the future success of 5G hinges on the availability of a deep fiber backhaul.

The essential relationship between fiber optics and 5G wireless networks

5G wireless small cells and their fiber wireline networks will never be mutually exclusive. To understand the relationship between wireless and wireline networks, it’s helpful to think of a city’s network in physiological terms: 5G will function splendidly as the capillaries (mobile fronthaul) of a city’s networking system — but internet traffic will travel nearly its entire journey in the veins or arteries (fiber backhaul).

In fact, much like the human bloodstream, only about 11% of traffic is carried by wireless networks, according to a study by Deloitte. The other 90% of internet traffic is supported and carried by the wireline network.

So in a 5G world, the customer experience will be improved by better small cell wireless access points. But ultimately, the quality and reliability of the wireless network will depend on the wireline (fiber) network carrying traffic to and from the 5G small cells.

Future trends of 5G wireless depend on fiber implementation

While it’s predicted that 5G technology won’t be available until at least 2019 in selected test markets, now is the time to begin thinking about its implications and preparing for its deployment. In downtown St. Louis, for instance, swaths of dark fiber are poised for use as the advent of 5G comes closer.

But it’s up to policymakers and business owners to take advantage of this asset. They’ll have to work in tandem to ensure investment in fiber deployment continues to be a priority as we lay the groundwork for 5G wireless networks. The success of the 5G transition will depend on this —  it’s expected that nearly $150 billion will need to be invested in fiber infrastructure throughout the U.S. States to transform 5G from dream to reality.

If investments in a deep fiber infrastructure aren’t made now, the U.S. will fall behind on the impending 5G future. The successful transition to 4G spurred the growth of as many as 770,000 jobs, and the 5G transition has the potential to do the same.

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