As next-generation (next-gen) applications diversify, proliferate, and expand, the task of achieving adequate and widespread 5G wireless communications enablement will largely depend on the re-architecture of underlying networks. To create the network infrastructure of our future, ensuring the best of density, low latency, accessibility and capacity will be vital. As the wireless communications industry heads into 2020 and prepares to deliver on the promise of 5G, reinventing fiber infrastructure is critical for facilitating a thriving next-gen ecosystem.
The 5G Revolution
The host of developments that are spurring the need for new network standards — the internet of things, artificial intelligence, smart cities and autonomous vehicles, for example — are leading to the creation of monumental amounts of data. In fact, in 2018 alone, the world created 33 zettabytes of data.1 To put this into perspective, this is enough information to fill around 660 billion standard Blu-ray discs or 33 million human brains. By 2025, this number will reach 175 zettabytes.2
Subsequently, as the world of IT and telecommunications shifts into the next-gen world of 5G and away from traditional strategies and services, it is not enough for the transformation to simply be an evolution — it must be a revolution. Although infrastructure is moving to the edge to accommodate this mass amount of data creation, management, storage and access, current network topologies are not yet built to empower the widespread availability and capacity that is needed to support increasing performance and application demands. If the industry is to achieve seamless 5G enablement, a complete and fundamental shift in underlying infrastructure must occur.
Legacy fiber networks supporting today’s 4G/LTE mobile infrastructure (called distributed radio access networks, or D-RANs) of sparsely placed macro sites and small cells were built without accessibility at top of mind, relying instead on sparse accessibility points at predetermined splicing locations. In metro areas, this meant a macro site at every half-mile or mile — sites could even be up to five or six miles apart in the suburbs. This approach was suitable for the time and accomplished the task of linking disparate endpoints with high-capacity backhaul frameworks. However, these networks were built to solve a sparse networking challenge, which is a completely different problem than the one the industry currently grapples with.
Network topologies no longer focus on a limited number of macro base stations. Instead, topologies are becoming far denser more quickly and seamlessly extend augmented capabilities to a growing number of users and businesses across new and emerging markets. We’re now entering an era of a centralized or cloud-computing based architecture known as C-RAN. To build a proper foundation for 5G and C-RAN technologies, macro sites will be divided into a dense fabric of small cells and antennas, and wireless densification will be a central pillar of long-term success.
The simple truth is that fiber is not in all the right places yet. In essence, we are building toward an ecosystem that can support the deployment of antennas everywhere, starting with one or more small cell site per operator on every block instead of one every five or six blocks. The 5G infrastructure that we’ll be working toward in 2020 will deliver a robust network with a much more efficient blend of capacity, latency and accessibility, and it will be realized with help from one vital network element: fronthaul fiber.
Fronthaul fiber will serve as the critical network piece that connects new neighborhood-based network-edge collocation sites to the masses of new antenna locations, enabling the infrastructure to deliver high capacity, and it will be densely accessible. The 5G world will only be as capable as the infrastructure that supports it, and it will only be as robust and extensive as the fiber paths that its applications and data traverse. Therefore, because demands are shifting dramatically, the primary task lies in building these key fronthaul deployments. Luckily, the implementation of fronthaul is being driven by the fact that more industry mobile operators are understanding the model as a so-called horizontal cell tower, presenting a huge opportunity as a shared resource that can help achieve an economy of scale.
What to Expect
The industry needs to build a world in which multiple nodes and antennas reside on every utility pole, every street light and every piece of street furniture. This ubiquitous coverage will begin with a phase of land grabs, wireless siting applications and site acquisitions.
This initial siting and acquisition step will not come without its challenges. The biggest hurdles to overcome are associated with municipal education and rights acquisitions. The industry must help municipalities understand dense deployment requirements and get them on board despite concerns over aesthetics, construction, secure approval and consent. This process is already relatively slow, and it is slowed even further by the fact that rules and regulations across different locations are not yet homogenous. The processes and challenges in one area may differ from those of another, complicating the approval process and delaying critical deployments.
Furthermore, utility companies, which are needed to bring power to these poles and antennas, aren’t currently equipped with processes that work with the volume and density of this new wireless architecture. As 5G demand increases, the number of wireless sites required will grow from tens of thousands across the United States in 2020 to hundreds of thousands in the next five years, forcing utility companies to adapt to the demand and more vigorously support the industry.
Fortunately, as the telecommunications ecosystem becomes more aware of what 5G truly requires to come to fruition, industry organizations are helping to overcome these challenges by creating educational processes for municipalities, lawmakers and public utility entities. Lobbying at the state and federal levels is also working to promote homogenized regulations to speed up deployments across an array of locations.
The promises that 5G technology brings represent a quantum leap in technology applications from where the industry stood with 4G technology. As a result, this next-generation network will be rolled out in phases on a multiyear timeline. The early 5G deployments will provide coverage across broad areas using existing mid-band spectrum from macro and sparsely spaced small cell sites. Thus, we are likely to see adequate network coverage in the span of few years — but capacity will not yet have reached the required level. It is at that point that the industry will need to revisit the networks and build for capacity, density and low latency. As 5G demand grows, the mobile operators will then focus efforts on the real promise of 5G: high capacity, low latency bandwidth sliced by class of service everywhere it is needed.
A truly 5G-capable network, once built out, will ultimately become the network that connects everything. Solutions will be needed to enable antennas to be placed and accessed at every manhole and every pole top that fiber traverses, as well as on every building floor from basement to rooftop and beyond. Just as 4G took a decade to accomplish, true 5G rollout is a layered challenge that comes to reality through an iterative process. Early applications for 5G are most likely to become available through low- and mid-band spectrum, but high-band and millimeter-wave applications are more likely to occur later on in the lifecycle.
In 2020, evolving the infrastructure ecosystem with densification and new fronthaul networks will be a foundational part of ensuring we can collectively move into the future of next-gen connectivity and capabilities. Once this is accomplished, we will see a future complete with opportunities to enable applications and use cases that right now we can only imagine.
Ray LaChance is cofounder and CEO of ZenFi Networks. Visit www.zenfi.com.