Almost on a daily basis we hear more and more about the rollout of 5G. From the advertisements of carriers, to smart city planning by community leaders to the new policies announced at the FCC, 5G is very much on everyone’s mind. As we discuss what is needed to ensure the deployment of fifth generation wireless one thing all experts know, you can’t have 5G without fiber.
At the Fiber Broadband Association’s latest Fiber for Breakfast live video series, Kevin Morgan, chief marketing officer at Clearfield, and Kurt Jacobs, director of solutions at JMA Wireless, drove this point home as they discussed the importance of fiber when it comes to 5G technologies.
“We think of 5G not as a transport technology, but as an access technology,” Morgan said. “Just like fiber connected all those businesses and homes with fiber-to-the-home, we’re going to have an end user type of access technology with these small cells, and that’s going to require fiber and fiber connections.”
In a 5G ecosystem, density is key. With an increased number of devices connecting more than ever, 5G networks are expected to deliver low latency and high reliability with a great amount of coverage. In terms of spectrum, the deployment of 5G can take place in the upper mmW band, mid-band (CBRS), or low-band with all configurations offering different characteristics. 5G in the upper mmW band offers Gigabit+ bandwidth but the signal travels shorter distances and relies on line-of-sight technology. By contrast in the lower spectrum bands, 5G has a broader coverage area, does not depend on line-of-sight, but has relatively low bandwidth in terms of capability.
In order for the necessary small cells that support 5G to operate, they need an underlying network that can work quickly at a high capacity. Fiber offers the needed solution for coverage densification.
“The technology for 5G really needs to push tens of hundreds times of capacity out to the edge, and normal copper isn’t going to do that,” Jacobs said. “There is no wireless without wires [fiber].”
For 5G to deliver its promised speeds and capacity, it optimally requires more mmW small cell sites than ever. Small cell sites—often installed on light poles or on the side of buildings in dense areas—offer more network stability than their macro cell predecessors.
To enable 3G, cellular networks installed one mmW small cells per 10 km. When carriers moved to a 4G cellular network, there was an increase of a one small cell per every 2 km. For 5G, Morgan said it will require a small cell for every .5 km. To put this into perspective, the U.S. would need 20 million to 30 million small cell sites to power 5G nationwide.
“There’s a lot of fiber that is going to be pulled into the 5G world,” he said.
Jacobs said 5G is going to drive enhanced mobile broadband and power the next generation of IoT. All of our devices—from our tablets and TVs to our cars—will run at least somewhat on 5G networks. For businesses and industries looking to utilize 5G to innovate, it will require a large increase in capacity.
Jacobs said while there are a slew of technologies needed to deliver these type of capabilities to devices of all kinds, fiber is an essential part in every one of them.
“The things that are needed are what fiber is really, really good at,” Jacobs said. “The additional drivers for this are not only connecting handsets and increasing revenue and market share to consumers, it’s also bringing productivity gains, new applications and connecting autonomous vehicles for transportation networks, etc.”
It’s something Morgan saw at Super Bowl LIV earlier this year. Fiber powered small cell sites around the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Fla., enabling 5G access.
“It has 24 drop fibers going to the radios housed within a small cell,” he said. “This is how fiber is included in the 5G ecosystem. We’re seeing it more now as an access technology.”
The next challenge is understanding how fiber will be a component in 5G in different areas in the network, as well as how other technologies like Wifi 6 and PON will compete. The biggest question will be which technologies offer the best capacity in certain areas of the network, and how those work together to deliver a secure connection.
“Now that we can distribute and have network function visualization and move components of the 5G architecture in different places in the network, there’s going to be a balance and discovery process in the industry—where’s the best place to map certain 5G technologies with fiber technologies to get the best trade-off,” Jacobs said. “It might be different in a rural environment than it is in a metro environment, it might depend on the service you’re providing—low latency or high capacity. That’s going to be the fun part, figuring out where that is.”
Join us for our next Fiber for Breakfast live video at 10 a.m. on July 15. The topic: Why Fiber is the Answer for Lower Network Operational Expenses. An FBA Study.