Fiber is the key to unlocking 5G's full potential

Paul Ng/Corning Optical Communications

5G was the hot topic on everyone’s lips at the Mobile World Congress 2019 in Barcelona, with conversations surrounding the great business potential the rollout of 5G can bring.

Viewed as the next evolution in mobile networks, 5G will enable broadband-like speeds on mobile devices, improved download and upload speeds, reduced latency, and allow a massive number of devices to connect to the network simultaneously.

Asia Pacific itself is set to become the world’s largest 5G region by 2025, led by markets such as Australia, China, Japan and South Korea, according to the GSMA Mobile Economy Asia Pacific 2018 report. This does not come as a surprise since Asia Pacific has seen the biggest global mobile subscriber growth in recent years and still has room for growth. 5G networks are also expected to be launched in this region by end of 2019, covering 39% of the region’s population by 2025. 

Amidst the growing conversations on 5G and the opportunities the rollout will offer, it is also crucial to note that 5G will only be as powerful as the fiber networks that serve them. Integral to the success of 5G technology is an extensive optical fiber network, where all projected performance goals of 5G will ultimately depend on the strength of fiber connectivity.

We approach the next generation of mobile communications with the understanding that the underlying foundation of fiber networks is key to ushering the ultrafast speeds of 5G that can support new types of Internet of Things (IoT) applications, where the levels of bandwidth required far exceeds the capacity of 4G mobile networks.

Why 5G networks need fiber

According to industry body FTTH Council, Singapore currently ranks third in the world for fiber-to-the-home/building (FTTH/B) penetration rates worldwide, with China, South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan following respectively as of September 2018.

Moving forward, Singapore is set to play a pioneering role in the upcoming 5G era, with the government already showing support for greater technological innovation in 5G by lowering regulatory barriers for interested companies to explore the potential benefits and applications of 5G networks. This includes waived fees for 5G trials, public consultations and proposal of new regulations to support development and deployment of 5G in Singapore.

In order to achieve the full potential of 5G speeds, an underlying consideration is that networks need to be supported by an advanced fiber infrastructure. From the macrocells and small cells, to the data centers that deliver apps and services, it is crucial that fiber connects all non-wireless aspects of the network.

The key to building an ultrafast, 5G-ready network is to have greater density of fiber and bringing fiber as close as possible to the end user. More fiber allows for a greater number of cells, and ultimately more reliable bandwidth. This is integral to ushering the way for upcoming developments in AI, such as autonomous vehicles and virtual reality, which all require large amounts of bandwidth.

With the region’s growing appetite for bandwidth-heavy and high-performance activities such as high definition video streaming and advanced gaming, it is more important than ever to ensure infrastructure is capable of meeting greater computing and connectivity needs. Robust fiber infrastructure is also key for industries looking to implement futuristic technologies such as IoT which require more advanced networks. By supporting the expansion of fiber coverage, consumers in the region are able to experience high performance capabilities enabled by 5G connectivity.

Easier and cost-effective expansion with network convergence

To date, fiber has been deployed extensively across the developed world, presenting an opportunity to rapidly expand 5G-ready networks starting with currently installed network infrastructure. By leveraging current infrastructure, network operators can quickly scale 5G-ready networks by deploying small cells at cabinets for FTTH connections. This approach, where multiple services such as fixed line broadband and wireless services share the same physical network infrastructure such as fiber or a street cabinet, is known as convergence.

Convergence brings several benefits to operators, including overall reduction in costs. There is a growing pressure on businesses and network operators to deliver greater efficiency and profitability without compromising on network quality. By utilizing the same fiber for different types of services, operators can maximize the use of existing assets and enjoy savings in installation and maintenance costs. Converged networks can also result in significantly less power usage compared to standard networks, which will be good news for operators facing pressures to lower their carbon footprint.

Disruption to communities will also be reduced: civil works will be minimized as the same street and pit would not need to be dug up repeatedly for different types of connections or upgrades. Convergence makes it easier for operators to quickly update the network or add new services using existing fiber, in a cost-effective and future-ready manner.

Flexibility and scalability of networks remain a top concern for operators due to the ever-growing need for reliable, secure connectivity. With current mobile demand and new wireless standards on the horizon, operators are constantly on the lookout for advanced fiber infrastructure and solutions that are future-ready and can be configured according to the changing needs of subscribers, fast.

Paul Ng is carrier networks manager for Southeast Asia at Corning Optical Communications and director of board at FTTH Council Asia-Pacific

Image credit: iStock Photo

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