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How 5G and fiber became 5iber

(Image credit: Shutterstock.com / Who Is Danny)

I love following the progress of this map from Ookla, the company behind Speedtest.net which shows both trials and commercial deployments of 5G around the world. Already, 126 operators have switched on 5G in more than 9,000 locations.

As good as that sounds, we are still at the beginning of the 5G era. Much of the future success of 5G and the acceleration of its availability depends on another technology – fixed fiber access.

This partnership between fiber and 5G—let’s call it 5iber—involves three areas where they are combining to fulfil the world’s desire for Gigabit broadband at home and on the move:

  • Fiber access networks providing mobile transport for 5G small cells.
  • Fiber access networks providing 5G offload via in-home Wi-Fi networks. 
  • 5G fixed wireless access solutions complementing and completing Gigabit Fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) rollouts.

Let’s look at each of these in more detail.

FTTH for mobile transport

5G will enable new applications that were not possible in previous generations of mobile networks, providing higher speeds, lower latency, and universal coverage. To deliver on that promise, 5G needs a transport network that can carry the traffic from small cells deeper into the network. And that requires fiber.

Operators have, naturally, been turning to the fiber that is already in place within the cities and towns where 5G is most urgently needed. FTTH networks providing business and residential broadband services are uncannily well positioned to provide mobile transport, not only by virtue of their physical footprint but also because of their scalability for increased connectivity and throughput of 5G mobile transport.

The beauty of FTTH networks is that they can be upgraded to successive generations of Passive Optical Network (PON) technology with minimum disruption to the infrastructure. Many operators are currently in the process of moving from GPON to XGS-PON, which provides 10 Gb/s symmetrical bandwidth. These networks can easily absorb the mobile transport traffic currently needed for 5G. But with an eye on the growth in demand for connectivity, the industry is already investing in 25G PON as the future next-generation PON technology and low latency PON standards with even the most demanding 5G deployment being supported by FTTH.

As FTTH networks are taking root worldwide, they are increasingly available to be used for mobile transport. By using an existing FTTH network, mobile operators can connect small cell locations quicker, eliminate the need for a dedicated transport network, and cut the total cost of ownership in half.

Wi-Fi offload

Another area where fiber plays an important support role for 5G is in offload. Already more than half of mobile traffic is offloaded to Wi-Fi as soon as a user moves indoors. We are all used to it and probably do not even notice it’s happening, expecting a seamless handoff and the same quality of experience from mobile to Wi-Fi. Offload is due to increase with 5G for three reasons: users preserving their data caps; operators preserving their spectrum; and the higher frequencies of 5G being less able to provide good coverage inside buildings.

Fortunately, Wi-Fi has evolved at the same pace as cellular technology. The latest Wi-Fi 6 standard shares the same technical foundations as 5G and very similar performance levels in terms of latency and bandwidth but on smaller scale, ideal for indoor use. When Wi-Fi 6 sits on the end of a fiber connection, the overall performance allows operators to offload 5G traffic to Wi-Fi networks and keep the same consumer experience. Additional benefits of 5G offload to Wi-Fi is that it helps operators better manage RAN capacity and costs, frees up 5G capacity for critical applications, higher ARPU services, and true mobile services. What’s more, Wi-Fi 6 can handle voice and signaling traffic as well as data, giving operators more options for a seamless quality of experience from outside to inside the home.

5G fixed wireless access

We’ve seen a couple of areas where fiber is vital for supporting 5G, but it works the other way as well.

One of the biggest challenges for fixed broadband providers is providing a Gigabit experience to everyone, everywhere. In many locations, it can be too challenging—physically or economically—to draw fiber all the way to a home or building. 5G fixed wireless access (FWA) technology is a perfect complement in these situations, allowing an operator to complete the coverage gaps in a Gigabit fiber deployment by using 5G FWA for the “last mile” connection. For mobile or converged operators, FWA is a way to quickly build footprint or compete with fiber, creating new revenues beyond mobile services.

Typically, FWA can be used in two situations. The first is to increase service coverage with lower cost and a faster deployment time than fiber. Using existing LTE or 5G mid-band infrastructure is a very efficient way to deliver bandwidth, because you do not need to deploy mobile infrastructure – it is already there. This approach has wide coverage, so operators can connect more users, but it has relatively low bandwidth compared to fiber, delivering 50-100 Mb/s. During the Covid-19 crisis, this approach gained lot of traction in the market because it allowed operators to quickly deliver broadband, enabling users to work from home or attend school classes in areas where it was not possible before. The second use case for FWA is in providing fiber-like speeds. This approach involves 5G mmWave deployments, meaning more small cells, more transport, etc., resulting in a fiber-like cost or even higher.

Accelerating together to the Gigabit era

5G usage is only going to grow. Regardless of the next iteration of mobile technology, the number of cell sites will steadily increase, along with capacity and usage, while the mobile transport network will need to continue scaling to keep up.

FTTH networks are already ten times denser than radio cell networks and can easily absorb the increase in access points when connecting 5G cell sites. They offer a strategic, long-term solution for bandwidth-intensive services, while 5G returns the compliment by enabling FTTH operators to complete their Gigabit deployments, even when fiber can’t get to every home and building.

5G is expected to have a huge impact on our everyday lives, from personal use to advanced new apps ranging from automated vehicles, first responder services, to smart cities. But it can’t do it alone: the secret to a high-performing 5G network is a high-performing FTTH network.

Where 5G and fiber combine as 5iber, they really do bring better broadband to more people, more quickly, than either can alone.

Ana Pesovic, Fixed Networks, Nokia