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The myth of wireless: Why you can’t have 5G without fibre

Article by Greg Whiffin, Corning Optical Communications commercial operation director, Enterprise Networks.

With the first 5G networks expected to launch by 2020, we are only a few short years away from the next chapter of mobile communications. While 5G technology has yet to be standardised, the promised ultrafast speeds will require levels of bandwidth that far exceed that of today’s 4G mobile networks.   

The most obvious difference from 4G to 5G will be the increase in network speed and capacity, which in turn will support new types of applications and connectivity to a more diverse range of devices. Critically, with this increase in speed, the demands on mobile data and bandwidth will proliferate. This means more cells will be needed to meet demand as 5G will require a more dense network of towers to handle the traffic – a process called network densification.

The current generation of mobile networks relies largely on macrocells to handle all connections within a specific geographic area. Increasingly, network operators are deploying low-powered small cells to areas already covered by macrocells to help increase capacity in locations with high user demand, while avoiding the expense of procuring larger cell sites.

This combination of macrocells and small cells is known as a heterogeneous network or HetNet for short. They are an important feature of LTE-Advanced networks and will almost certainly be standardised with 5G. They have many advantages, particularly in terms of flexibility and spectrum efficiency.

Why do 5G networks need fibre?

5G networks promise to deliver fibre-like speeds over a wireless connection. But in order to achieve these speeds, firstly networks need to be underpinned by an advanced fibre infrastructure. From the macrocells and small cells to the data centers that deliver apps and services, it is essential that fibre connects all non-wireless aspects of the network; otherwise, 5G will never be able to reach its potential.

Bringing the fibre as close to the end user as possible is the best approach to building an ultrafast 5G-ready network. More fibre allows for a greater number of cells, and ultimately more bandwidth, which will be essential for forthcoming developments such as autonomous vehicles and telemedicine.

Fortunately, millions of kilometres of fibre have already been deployed globally, which presents an opportunity to rapidly expand 5G-ready networks using HetNet technology. By leveraging existing fixed-line broadband infrastructure, network operators can quickly scale 5G-ready networks by deploying small cells at cabinets for FTTH connections. This approach, where both fixed line and wireless services share the same physical resources, such as fibre or a street cabinet, is known as convergence.

Main benefits of converged networks

Convergence offers many benefits to operators, not least of which is an overall reduction in costs. By leveraging the same fibre for different types of connections, operators can maximize the use of existing assets and gain savings in terms of installation and maintenance costs. Converged networks also have the potential for significantly less power usage than standard networks, which will be welcome news for operators facing pressure to lower their carbon footprint.

Disruption to communities can also be minimised: civil works will be reduced as the same street and pit won’t need to be dug up multiple times for different types of connections or upgrades. Convergence effectively future-readies the network architecture and makes it easier for operators to cost-effectively and quickly update the technology or add new services using existing fibre.

Helping data center operators build converged networks

As operators are investing now to build a future-ready infrastructure, network flexibility and scalability is highly important as the need for easy access and reliable, secure connectivity will continue to surge. Operators need an advanced fibre infrastructures and solutions that can be configured in a number of ways to allow them to adapt to the changing needs of their subscribers, fast.  

Implementing a multiuse platform is a good way to cost-effectively prepare networks for densification and 5G, enabling a mix of network architectures to access the same fibre backbone. The converged architecture of the multiuse platform solution allows operators and municipalities to rapidly deploy fibre networks that can also support 5G wireless connectivity.  

A multiuse platform takes the single and multi-fibre pre-connectorized technology, which have been so successful in FTTH deployments worldwide, to the next stage by adding an additional layer of flexibility to outside plant (OSP) connectivity hardware. This enables configurations to be quickly customized and adapted, giving operators the freedom to update the infrastructure, as and when they require, with minimal disruption.

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