As the world continues to become more wireless, it also becomes more wired. Behind today’s mobile networks are hundreds of thousands of miles of fiber, connecting the mobile network with equipment on the ground, ultimately ensuring that enterprise users can communicate from wherever they are. This ‘invisible fiber’ often remains unpraised in the rush to meet the mobile hype of 5G and the use cases that the whole package is expected to deliver.
And there are some very exciting, tangible use cases for 5G emerging as the technology starts to come online, however 5G will not be as successful for MSPs and their customers if investment in the fixed side doesn’t match up to the requirements made of it by the cellular side: low latency, ultra-high bandwidth, and support for a huge number of discrete applications and quality of service.
The Mobile Network Challenge
The reason this is such a challenge is because of legacy mobile networks built up over decades. And, it may be the biggest challenge in a whole mobile generation because, on one hand, 5G promises so much that is game-changing across every vertical sector; on the other, it will push the capabilities of today’s networks to – and beyond – their current limitations. And that would be bad news for businesses reliant on 5G to grow, compete and profit. In short, the financial resources MSPs are committing to the cellular portion of 5G calls for a corresponding investment in the fixed back- mid- and front-haul networks.
Because there are so many different use cases and services that MSPs could choose to launch over the 5G network, conventional wisdom would dictate a need for multiple different network architectures to serve those individual needs. MSPs agree that this would be cost-prohibitive using the same methodology that 3G and 4G networks were built on. So why not have a single flexible underlying infrastructure - rather than multiple legacy networks - that can instead serve many different needs?
5G Demands That the Fixed Network Keep Step
Unlike Europe, which has a greater population density than the US, latency is a critical factor in meeting the promise of 5G. Latency forms much of the discussion about 5G in the US, and due to wide geography, most networks were built up around population centers. The focus is now on how MSPs can bring the network down to the state or city level, and to have that network meet the demand for services without incurring the level of expense traditionally associated with meeting that demand.
Here, fiber is fundamental to 5G because without it, MSPs’ spectrum capacity will exceed what can be pulled through the network using current backhaul technologies; wireless microwave connections economically tap out at about 10G, and yet according to the GSMA, 5G will require anything up to 10G per end user device alone. Then multiply the expected proliferation of enterprise and consumer devices, applications, and enterprise end points from IoT, and today’s networks would very easily be swamped.
Time for Fiber to Drive 5G Deployments
3GPP integrated access and backhaul is included in the recently completed Release 16 of the standard, which proposes using excess radio spectrum to bridge gaps or hand off to fiber. But it’s only one part of the solution to this problem, and Release 16 compliant public networks are not expected in production until 2022, according to the analysts.
In the meantime, it’s important for MSPs to view their network holistically, and imagine what would be possible with more fiber. Currently, MSPs are reaching a fiber exhaustion point where current assets are becoming maxed out and the demand for fiber pairs is exploding because radio-based solutions to backhaul are reaching their current limit. But with careful attention to the fiber portion of the network, fiber acts as a catalyst and force multiplier to maximize radio investments while meeting the new demands.
With so much at stake for 5G in the coming months, expect to see more progress with the fixed side of the 5G network, alongside radio. There’s been much progress with standardization of radio for 5G, and indeed, some MSPs are leading the way with 5G deployments in major cities. With a fiber foundation, the promise of 5G for enterprises and consumers will shine that much more brightly.
Mark Gilmour is VP Mobile Connectivity Solutions at Colt Technology Services.