5G Alone Will Not Solve Our Connectivity Problem

5G is being lauded as the big solution to our connectivity inequality—technology that will transform communities, drive the IoT revolution, and even save the planet. But 5G still needs fiber.

5G is being lauded as the big solution to our connectivity inequality—technology that will transform communities, relieve overburdened networks as more people work from home, drive the Internet of Things (IoT) revolution, and even save the planet. This excitement has also resulted in some serious misconceptions (some encouraged by the incumbent telecoms)—most notably that 5G will replace the need for fiber-optic networks. In fact, fiber networks are the essential foundation for 5G and other wireless technologies. As Susan Crawford noted in her recent book: “the future of advanced wireless services depends completely on how much fiber is in place.”

What is 5G?

5G stands for fifth-generation cellular wireless: new, better mobile internet that will replace the standards for current 4th generation mobile networks. The technology is expected to be a game-changer due to vastly reduced data transfer delays (instantaneous machine to machine communication), and the capacity to transfer enormous quantities of data back and forth.

These capabilities could have a high impact on the IoT industry—for devices that push non-sensitive data across wireless networks. In addition, roadside 5G cellular networks will help to support the data wave that will accompany autonomous vehicles.

But there is a catch: 5G will operate over a range of spectrums, including very high frequencies that can carry significant amounts of data, but only for short distances. This means we will need a dense network of 5G antennas (small cells) to ensure proper coverage. And while the cells are known as “small”, because the service area is small, the device itself is large and many municipalities are hesitant to have them installed at scale. With a maximum range of around 1500 feet, tens of millions of these devices will be required every few hundred feet to power a truly ubiquitous 5G network.

Why do we still need fiber?

5G networks need extensive land-based fiber systems—far more extensive than those required by existing 4G technology. Each of the small cell antenna sites 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 solution to the growing digital divide. 

In addition, while 5G will operate 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. So again, millions of these devices will be required to provide connectivity and will still require a solution to bring that signal into the home—a solution that will not always be the ideal replacement to fiber-to-the-home. Fiber to the home can provide a more robust and secure long-term solution to an end consumer, for a marginally higher CapEx.

A single 4G macro cell tower with a range of 10 miles. These towers can function on legacy copper or fiber optic lines, but can only deliver 1/20th of 5G speeds.
5G micro cells only have a range of approximately 1500 feet, and dozens are needed  to cover a single mile. Their capabilities can only be delivered with fiber.

A robust fiber network that facilitates distributed 5G sensors—as well as private fiber connections for sensors and technologies that require dedicated, low latency, secure bandwidth—will allow cities to make significant impacts on problems from wasteful water use, traffic flows and commute times, public safety, public health, environmental health, economic development, and much more.

The “Smart city” applications will be as endless as our imaginations, but all the solutions will be dependent on robust and widespread fiber networks. 

Why can’t we rely on service providers to build this massive fiber network?

Despite significant federal and state subsidies over the past few decades, incumbent service providers have failed to provide equitable, affordable, and reliable high-speed internet access in any market—let alone across the country. It should be no surprise, then, that they will continue to focus their capital expenditure (CapEx) on new technologies in the markets where they can generate the greatest returns. Or, conversely, in new markets where they do not need to overbuild their old cable infrastructure. This means that non tier one/two markets, and all of rural America, will be left behind as denser urban areas begin to reap the benefits of next-generation connectivity.

This coming revolution, and the ensuing coverage gaps, represent an opportunity to demonstrate what can be achieved with open access fiber networks, built with and for communities, designed from the outset to support 5G and any other type of service that requires connectivity. Far from replacing fiber, 5G services are complementary to robust, wired networks; and if we want distributed healthcare, resilient infrastructure, and new responsible energy creation, robust and widespread fiber networks will be essential.

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