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STL: Are our networks “future ready”?

With internet usage growing at an exponential rate, STL asks whether our 5G and FTTH networks are prepared to cope with the deluge of demand for capacity

STL: Are our networks “future ready”?

More than 10 million messages would have been delivered on WhatsApp and Facebook messenger, about a million queries would have been generated on Google and people would have swiped about half a million times on Tinder, by the time you finish reading this sentence.

As per current estimates from Cisco, there are almost 4.5 billion users on the internet which is equivalent to 58% of the global population. The exponential surge in the user base and its expected growth at a rate 7 times faster than the global population will lead to a projected monthly IP traffic of 396 Exabytes in 2022 as compared to 200 Exabytes per month in 2019, with a bulk of this growth coming from emerging markets in MEA and APAC.  

The primary driver of this jump in monthly traffic is the four-fold increase in video traffic from internet-based video surveillance, VR applications, video content and streaming services with You Tube alone accounting for 300 hours of video uploads every minute. As UHD video content becomes more common, this trend is only going to accelerate.

As a consequence of this increase in consumption of data there is an ever-increasing demand for higher bandwidth which is exacerbating the bandwidth gap (difference between desired data speed and available data speed) across the globe.  Average broadband speed in the US and UK is 11 and 24 Mbps respectively whereas  broadcasters like BT recommend 44 Mbps to stream UHD content. In the near future, a household of 4 would require bandwidth of 80-90 Mbps to have a good user experience.

Technology is evolving fast to support this insatiable demand for bandwidth with 5G wireless and wireline FTTH poised to play a pivotal role in ensuring the availability of the required bandwidth to the last mile.

However, as we move to next generation technologies like 5G and FTTH the bigger question is whether our networks are “Future Ready”?

What is FTTH?

In simple terms, FTTH is the goal of providing high bandwidth data connectivity to consumers’ homes, with the speed passing beyond 100 Mbps. FTTH aims to increase the average population bandwidth, laying the foundation for faster data communication. While the cost of deploying FTTH varies, about 70% of the deployment cost is spent in civil works, such as digging. Additionally, it’s a time-consuming process, which takes a toll on capital and resources.

Over time, the cost of connecting each home to the FTTH networks needs to be earned with service revenue. In the case of small communities, it’s a complex task that needs to be addressed in different ways.

What is 5G?

Contrary to popular belief, 5G is not just an upgrade of 4G. 5G is really a combination of 4G like spectrum called ‘low band’ that has the benefit  of longer propagation distance but offers lower data speeds and much higher frequencies that  provide substantially higher bandwidths but unfortunately the propagation distance of these bands (frequencies) is much less and hence they have a smaller coverage area.  

The beauty of 5G is that it uses ‘4G alike’ frequencies to offer a 4G like service level over longer distances to create a basic coverage. This is the type of implementation that we see in early 5G rollouts today. To provide super high data speeds with low latency, much higher frequencies will be used over short distances serving fewer consumers with an ultimately better download speed (bandwidth).  

The equipment to deliver high bandwidth services will utilize frequencies in the 3.6-3.8 GHz range (not used in 4G). As these frequencies have a smaller coverage area, (hence the term small cells), the equipment will initially be deployed predominantly in dense urban areas. The high bandwidth available at these frequencies will allow you to quickly download the new episode of your favourite series in seconds before you catch your train for going to work and once the download is complete, your phone call might again come in at a low band frequency as the call does not require video download speeds. But these higher frequencies of 5G do not penetrate walls very well and such, inside a building 5G signals need to be ‘repeated’ often to have the same experience or the customer would need to be offloaded to Wi-Fi at home served through FTTH connections eventually.

To serve a large enough number of customers these small cells will need to be installed in the streetscape and to deliver the promised capacity and bandwidth to its users, they will need to be connected by optical fibre. 

The Case for Convergence 

It is clear that in order to ensure a seamless customer experience, both 5G and FTTH deployments will need to complement each other. Both will use optical fibre, which will need to be deployed in a much denser way than it is currently, with even many developed economies lagging in fibre penetration. One reason is that the cost associated with laying fibre, especially civil works, is significant and that makes it challenging to make a viable business case. 

However, while both business cases might be challenging on their own, the combination of both might offer a better payback. FTTH Council Europe, which is an industry forum lobbying for FTTH rollouts in Europe, have made FTT-5G convergence the prime focus of their communication in recent years and it makes perfect sense. Whether an operator builds a 5G network or an FTTH network, it is a good idea to build the capacity for both together as new standards in FTTH technology like NG-PON2 allow both sets of data to run over the same physical and logical network.

While the end objective is to take fibre to each home, this utopia will take time to achieve. Till such time that FTTH achieves complete coverage, future 5G spectrum at 28GHz or the license free 60GHz spectrum might bridge the gap for several years by having a wireless drop from a point near the home, for example the lamp post, to a receiver mounted on the home’s façade. This technology, often referred to as FWA (Fixed Wireless Access), can provide FTTH like bandwidths over short distances in a line-of-sight link between the network and the home.  Trials with this FWA technology are ongoing. But again, these FWA access nodes require many fibre aggregation points to enable the required bandwidth.

To make the business case even stronger, telecom operators are increasingly joining hands with their competitors to build these expensive fibre deployments together. Operators in Germany & the UK are leading the way with many more in discussions with each other.

Fibre Is the Only Certainty

As telecom operators merge, collaborate, and purchase materials in joint efforts, it will also drive vendor consolidation and force suppliers to evolve from selling products to becoming end-to-end solution providers. Many of them have already started on this path with optical fibre vendors adding software capabilities to offer more comprehensive solutions to their customers. 

There is a lot of uncertainty about how networks might evolve in the future, but it is clear that this decade will bring about a lot of change in the telecom landscape to allow for further rollout of next-generation networks. And the one thing these networks will have in common is that there will be significantly more fibre buried under our soil. 

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