The United States is behind in terms of fiber-optic penetration for backhaul, which must be resolved before nationwide LTE networks will become a reality, Hunter Newby, Allied Fiber, told an audience at the Tower and Small Cell Summit in Las Vegas, late in May.
“We have a problem as a country. There’s a huge, gaping hole in the U.S. [fiber-optic] infrastructure,” Newby said during the Opportunities in Backhaul session. “Of all the antenna sites in existence, more than 300,000, I believe we have fiber penetration to about 30 percent, and that might be charitable.”
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development ranks the United States well behind other countries in terms of fiber penetration, Newby said.
Newby noted a March 12 Vertical Systems Group report that showed business access to fiber in the United States has grown from 10.9 percent to 36.1 percent since 2004, leaving 63.9 percent unserved.
“The report said the fiber gap is closing, which I found rather fantastic,” Newby said. “That means in eight years, we have increased only 26 percent. At that pace, in 16 years, we will be … on the same level that Singapore, South Korea and Japan are on today. That is not so good. Not so good.”
Fiber and microwave are complementary, and microwave will always exist at the edge of the fiber ring, Newby conceded. While a one-hop microwave hookup will provide LTE speeds under certain circumstances, fiber is critical for LTE to work for a given density of users, he said.
“How can we have even a single nationwide 4G LTE, if LTE doesn’t work effectively without fiber to the tower and there is only fiber to 30 percent of the antenna sites?” Newby asked. “Well, we can’t. The reality is we don’t. We need to get real about what is actually out there in terms of infrastructure.”
The root of the problem, according to Newby, is the unwillingness of investors to put their money in fiber-optic infrastructure.
“Everybody wants a 12-month return on investment on a fiber-to-the-tower build,” he said. “The most that anyone is going to fund is five miles. A mile [fiber build out] is a chip shot, but for an ROI outside of 12 months no one is investing.”
Allied Fiber is working to address the lack of accessible dark fiber in the market by making carrier-neutral dark fiber available for cell tower backhaul and other needs. In 2008, it embarked on a five-phase plan to build a fiber loop around the perimeter of the nation. Last year, it built a 150-mile route in Georgia that was driven by an operator that wanted Ethernet services to 250 towers. The firm is now building from Miami to Atlanta, as well as completing the Phase One route from New York City to Chicago.
Meanwhile, AT&T is achieving more progress in its fiber backhaul rollout than expected, according to an investor note by Wells Fargo Senior Analyst Jennifer Fritzsche. The carrier says it has fiber to more than 75 percent of its 58,000 cell sites.
“While AT&T has been public about the fact that 90 percent plus of its data traffic is on enhanced backhaul (primarily fiber), this was the first time we heard it quantify the specific percentage of fiber-drawn sites,” she wrote. “We note this percentage significantly exceeds that of the smaller two national players (despite marketing and promotions suggesting the opposite).”
Fritzsche also reports that Zayo Group, a global dark fiber provider, is experiencing increased demand for fiber-to-the-tower to meet data demand.
Zayo has experience beefing up fiber-to-the-tower in advance of major sporting events. For example, The company installed a dark fiber ring to improve wireless capacity and reliability during last month’s events in Indianapolis 500. Zayo’s services supported wireless traffic backhaul from a DAS deployment at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, enabling a 23-mile fiber ring connecting a national carrier’s multiple points of presence and the speedway.
Zayo Group also provided a metro dark-fiber network in and around Indianapolis for ExteNet Systems to use in its distributed telecommunications networks for this year’s Super Bowl.
Zayo now manages more than 540 fiber route miles in the Indianapolis metro area and supports service to more than 300 buildings on-net.