Intro to Fiber, Open Access, “Broadband”, 5G

A quick primer on what we mean when we talk about fiber networks, the open access model, "broadband", and 5G.

What is a fiber-optic network? 

A fiber network consists of the physical fiber-optic infrastructure and the internet service. This system uses glass (or plastic) to carry light which is used to transmit information and is a critical replacement for copper wires or cable.

You can think about the physical infrastructure like the pipes that are required to deliver an internet connection into your home and office. 

The internet service then travels down these pipes and is provided by Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Right now, it is common for ISPs to own the network infrastructure to the home in addition to providing the service in a vertically integrated model where they are the only service option. 

What does it mean when a network is “open access”? 

In the open access model, ownership of the infrastructure (the pipes) is separated from the provision of services (e.g. internet)—and this means that multiple service providers can operate on the shared infrastructure. 

The result is that service providers can enter new markets without needing to build their own infrastructure, and consumers experience greater choice,  better service, and lower prices as a result of competition between providers on an open access network .  

What does “broadband” mean? 

There is no agreement on what internet speed is required to be considered a “broadband” connection. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines broadband as connection speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps (this translates to 25 megabits of data per second download, and 3 megabit per second upload).

What’s the impact of fiber?

Fiber networks offer more reliable connections and far superior speeds: made of fiber threads instead of copper wires or cable, these networks transmit data at near the speed of light. They also provide symmetrical speeds — in other words, the same speed for download (e.g. video streaming) and upload (e.g. putting a video on youtube or sending a large file to friends).

The super-fast transmission of data will give home-based workers fast, reliable, and clear connections to work most effectively; large files can be downloaded in seconds. Students will be able to use the best resources on the internet to carry-out research and complete their homework. Medical personnel can monitor patient health remotely and in real-time. At home, this translates to a fast connection for everything from video chatting with friends, to smart home uses like security cameras.

As Harvard Professor Susan Crawford illustrates in her book, Fiber, the difference between copper and the upgrade to fiber is the difference between how much water (data) can be transferred through “trickling garden hose” and a “15 mile wide river.” 

How does the fiber “network” relate to the WiFi in your home?

Once your home is connected, you can use a hardline or a wireless connection to connect to the internet. 

Will 5G replace the need for a fiber network?

Far from being replaced by new 5G wireless technology, fiber networks are the essential foundation for 5G and other wireless technologies. For 5G, each small cell antenna site needs to be connected by fiber-optic cables—it’s the only technology that can deliver sufficient bandwidth to each  site. The Fiber Broadband Association estimated that 1,390,816 miles of fiber will be required to build out just the 25 biggest metro areas in the United States. That this figure does not include coverage for the millions of residents in smaller urban markets—let alone those in rural communities—suggests that 5G will not be the primary, immediate solution to the growing digital divide. 

In addition, while 5G operates over frequencies capable of transmitting larger amounts of data, the signal can only travel 10% of the distance of a 4G signal, and does not penetrate physical obstructions such as walls and vegetation. This means each antenna will only cover a diameter of roughly 750 feet, compared to current 4G coverage diameters of 3.5 miles. So again, millions of these devices will be required to provide connectivity—a solution that will not always be the ideal replacement to fiber-to-the-home. 

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