June 20, 2016
As the industry works to determine the path to a 5G standard, there already exists plenty to do to increase the speeds and reduce the latency of wireless networks. It will require the deployment of small cells, fiber optics, wireless backhaul, high-tech antennas and the internet of things (IoT). Any technological change comes with the need to create the infrastructure to support service providers that are eager to meet the demand for high bandwidth and speed, and 5G wireless communications is no different.
Lay a Fiber Stake in the Ground
The only way the 5G revolution can occur is if service providers understand the role that fiber will play. Fiber is the backbone that 5G will use to make the final connection with the consumer successful. 5G will need a robust infrastructure to provide high-speed, high-density connectivity to the masses, while providing allocated bandwidth for offloading data within a short distance. The key will be the implementation of small cell configurations to help increase the network’s capacity and density, which will support backhaul from the sites themselves. Tier-1 carriers such as AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and others have all made efforts to incorporate small cells into their network builds, deployments and upgrades. Small cells — femtocells, metrocells, microcells and picocells — when placed into an existing network, can significantly increase the amount of throughput and total network bandwidth. This, in turn, gives the service provider the flexibility it needs to effectively provide hotspots that feature denser connectivity possibilities. To succeed in providing the backhaul necessary to support the 5G network, small cell backhaul capability must be expanded.
There are several considerations to review before service providers can go down this road. For one thing, service providers must understand and clarify how much speed and capacity they will need to meet the demand of their customers. Short-term and long-term needs must be factored into these decisions. Also, service providers must calculate how quickly they will be able to turn up small cell deployments, and what role fiber will play in meeting their time-to-market goals.
Simplifying the installation process will also be a priority. Service providers also have to take into account the disruptive nature of fiber deployments, especially in urban environments, because much of the infrastructure is located underground or in cabinets next to busy streets.
There is no one-size-fits-all infrastructure for fiber deployments. Therefore, implementing scalable and modular standardized solutions into their networks ensures that carriers are able to maximize their network elements as they adapt and evolve those networks.
Another element for service providers to take into consideration is that they will need to move toward plug-and-play solutions that do not require skilled labor for deploying fiber. Lowering labor costs means service providers will be able to back more individual deployments that will support small cell deployment and backhaul for 5G.
The current 4G network infrastructure that provides 4G LTE connectivity can still be used to provide 5G. However, the overall wireless infrastructure will need many additions to support the 5G speeds. Currently, 4G LTE occupies the frequency bands up to 20 MHz. 5G is expected to sit on or around the 6-Hz band. While this means far more information will be able to cross back and forth over these frequencies than 4G LTE, it also means the signal will not travel nearly as far. Providing this connectivity over the existing 4G LTE network will not be sufficient to supply 5G to existing customers. Wireless service providers will need to build more cell towers capable of handling the amount of information 5G will be carrying across the network, along with adding new base stations and mounted antennas to capture signals. In addition, the access network is the one part of the global network infrastructure that still has a significant amount of copper and wireless technology deployed, which makes it important to lay fiber now.
Fiber will provide the foundation for the pipeline to backhaul from macro sites — tower and rooftop connection points — ensuring a flawless and complete 5G experience for the consumer. The fiber infrastructure will also provide the reliable and secure network needed to support IoT and other applications that will be able to run only on a 5G connection. Smart homes, city infrastructure, governments and millions of consumers around the globe will be relying on a robust 5G network to power the applications required to run their individual operations.
Financial and Market Considerations
Customer demand for faster and better service means service providers will be doubling down on efforts to bring 5G technology to fruition even faster than originally expected. Ensuring customers have a seamless transition and use of the 5G network will be paramount, not only from an expectation standpoint, but also from a financial perspective. Deploying 5G before the infrastructure is in place to handle it would seriously jeopardize adoption of the technology, throwing service providers’ existing and growing 5G networks and deployments into doubt. By solving the fiber challenge now, service providers will be able to maintain a high quality of service for their 5G networks as they are introduced and will be able to provide that much-needed network support backbone.
Fiber will allow 5G providers to service a broad variety of customers, including fixed-line and business, as well as to connect the mobile base stations that provide the critical last-mile connectivity needed to reach end-users. Fiber will pave the roads that 5G, once implemented, will be using every day. Service providers should prepare now to meet the challenges they will face to ensure their 5G deployments are successful.
Scot Bohaychyk, senior application engineer at Clearfield, has nearly 30 years in the telecommunications industry. His background includes serving in the White House Communications Agency, providing communications infrastructure support for President Ronald Reagan and his White House staff. Bohaychyk’s private-sector experience includes outside plant field and engineering experience, along with market development and sales work for blown and pushable fiber for long-haul fiber installations.