When the topic of 5G arises, generally the first thought that follows is the exciting new applications that it will foster. What seems to go relatively unacknowledged is that for 5G to reach its expected performance goals and transform our societies - it must be underpinned by a rich full-fibre network. In fact, there is no alternative.
5G is placed as the answer to all of the UK’s connectivity turmoil but it could never be the sole provider of internet services. The frequencies that 5G operate on are unable to penetrate objects as well as the frequencies of its predecessors (1G-4G) making the connection severely unstable. These higher frequencies require many more transmitters, closer to or inside the homes and offices that need internet access – otherwise known as small-cell sites. However, small-cell sites must be connected to the internet backbone by a wireline network. In other words, 5G is reliant on the high capacity fixed lines that support it.
Unfortunately, the UK’s fixed line infrastructure is severely lacking. The nation’s broadband services are heavily dependent on copper cables delivered using fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) technology. FTTC only routes the faster fibre connections as far as street cabinets, leaving existing copper connections to carry data the rest of the way. This is set to be a big problem as we move in to the 5G era - largely due to signal strength. Copper cables can only carry a gigabit signal 90 metres, as signal losses dramatically increase as data rates increase, copper will no longer be able to sustain the speeds and traffic of 5G.
Acknowledging copper networks as an archaic infrastructure, leaves full-fibre as the only option. Fibre-to-the-premises’ (FTTP) glass fibre cables transport data via light signals and can travel 65km without significant loss of signal strength. Essentially, fibre optics are only limited by the electronics used to transmit and receive signals. This makes it capable of handling 5G’s lower latency, bandwidth and speeds. If 5G is reliant on the fixed lines that support it, then our broadband infrastructure needs a radical upgrade, one that coincides with the consistently developing cellular generation.
Despite intensive efforts from the Government and industry over the past several years to boost connectivity, still less than 10% of homes and businesses have access to full-fibre. However, connectivity remains a priority, particularly for Boris Johnson who plans to have the UK’s copper networks turned off by 2025 and replaced by fibre.
For the UK to achieve its ubiquitous full-fibre coverage target, and to ensure it’s little more than a pipe dream, there needs to be more collaboration and investment from both the public and private sector. Quite simply, due to the scale and the cost, the UK Government simply cannot do it on its own.It must and it will continue to play its vital role as a catalyst for full-fibre deployment, including continuing the positive steps it has already made via funding schemes and addressing policies/regulations that acted as a bottleneck to deployment (e.g. Barrier Busting Taskforce).
The UK fibre market – being part of the telecoms and Internet sector – is an increasingly attractive investment for third-parties, along different stages of the value chain. It has a competitive nature and by regulatory standards the UK telecoms and Internet market is “open”. However, it’s important to note that there are many different business models that exist within the “open access networks” space. In the context of telecommunications networks, “open access” typically means the access granted to multiple service providers to wholesale services in the local access network.
This enables them to reach the subscriber without the need to deploy their own fibre access network. There are a number of business models that exist depending on which role the different stakeholders’ take-up.But one thing is for sure, aside from lowering the costs for service providers, open access can deliver what end-users want: choice of providers, choice of services, competitive pricing and high performance.
This open access-driven investment will be key in enabling further roll-out of fibre and ultimately the challenges of implementing 5G nationally. 5G will provide solutions to a variety of use cases across a wide range of sectors – from industrial automation and manufacturing, to retail and agriculture. It’s superhuman-like reaction times will power IoT allowing the proliferation of smart cities and the technologies central to their creation such as AI, robotics and machine learning. The possibilities for both businesses and consumers are limitless.
To achieve this, we must rapidly install full-fibre and ensure this infrastructure is accessible to all on fair, transparent and non-discriminatory terms. Fixed-line services will be massively improved and therefore capable of supporting 5G’s highest speeds. Together they can avoid the variables that 5G alone cannot overcome allowing the optimisation of emergent technologies. The future is close but we must play our part by supplying full-fibre.