5G or fifth-generation wireless is the next iteration of cellular services. The characteristics of 5G allow for greater speeds, lower latency, and the ability to address rapidly increasing amounts of data transmitted over wireless networks and massive machine to machine communication while making use of more available bandwidth and greater antenna technology. It’s an exciting technological development, but it’s not fully here yet and it has caused a lot of confusion about the nature of our future networks. Even The Wall Street Journal has it wrong. This week, I read an article stating that 5G “gives developers the ability to scale up projects more easily because there’s no need to build extensive fiber-optic networks to keep data flowing.” This couldn’t be further from the truth.
In fact, fiber is the essential backbone for all 5G networks to operate, for fronthaul, midhaul, backhaul, and the densification needed to network between small cells. A recent WIRED article entitled “5G Is Coming, and It’s Fortified With Fiber” reiterated this point that 5G involves not only spectrum, but also “lowly cable.” Huge numbers of new transmitters will be needed to relay all that data to your phone, and many of those transmitters will still connect to the internet through fiber-optic cable—glass as thin as strands of hair carrying pulses of light.”
That is because 5G will use much higher spectrum frequencies than today’s cellular networks do. These millimeter wave frequencies carry more data, but they have very short ranges, so many additional small cells must be installed close together—as close as 200 feet apart. And what will connect these small cells to each other? To provide multi-gigabit service to many users and applications, it will have to be hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—of miles of new fiber optic cable. As Deloitte reports, “[u]nlocking the full potential of 5G in the United States rests on a key assumption: the extension of fiber deep into the network.”
And industry agrees. When I state 5G needs fiber, and lots of it, the experts from all segments of the industry nod their heads in agreement. From SmartCities and 5G experts, to in-building wireless and DAS systems providers to building safety experts, traditional CMRS carriers to city, state officials and FCC leadership all agree fiber is the underlying critical infrastructure to make this all work. Verizon’s CEO Hans Vestberg shared in September that the company will need to build 1,400 route miles of fiber each month over the next couple of years to build out the network that it needs for nationwide 5G. He said, “the fiber deployment for us was extremely important” in 5G preparation and deployment.
We can’t have wireless without wires and we can’t have 5G without fiber.