Everywhere you look, the promise of 5G can be found. The benefits of the technology have been raved about for years in think pieces, on tech blogs, and from news sources as diverse as NPR, cable news, and local newspapers. Almost invariably this content is glowingly positive, showcasing the flashy use cases and capabilities of 5G. But very rarely does anybody ever talk about what it’s actually going to take to make this technology available ubiquitously across the United States. The result is an enormous pile of unrealistic expectations, and the perpetuation of the ignorant belief that fiber is unnecessary because 5G is “around the corner”. This couldn’t be further from the truth because fiber optic broadband networks are the literal underpinning of 5G, meaning that without fiber, 5G is impossible.
While the prevalent tone in the general public forum is overwhelmingly optimistic among industry insiders, I am hardly the only one with a less than sunny outlook on 5G’s nationwide rollout. In it’s 2017 report titled “Communications Infrastructure Upgrade – The Need For Dark Fiber” Deloitte states “Deep deployment of fiber optics is a national imperative. The success of 5G wireless will hinge on deep fiber.” and “The next transformation in infrastructure is 5G but the US is not well prepared to take full advantage of the potential, lacking needed fiber infrastructure close to the end customer (deep fiber).”
There are those that take a more conspiratorial bent, suggesting that the mobile network operators (MNOs) are engaged in such nefarious activity as knowingly suppressing fiber projects in general, and municipal broadband projects in particular by downplaying the need for FTTP networks while hyping 5G. The idea being that when the MNOs eventually get around to building in communities who are considering their own projects, the MNOs would enjoy a monopoly position in the market instead of having to compete against the likely, quite popular municipal option. I don’t believe it’s quite that intentionally sinister. Having spent a few years working on densification and wide area network deployments for AT&T and Verizon, I think the MNOs are simply acting in a logical fashion given their constraints and directives.
When the Verizons and AT&Ts of the world look at their available capex budgets for network upgrades and densification, it simply makes far more sense to focus their expenditures in the densest and most populous markets in their portfolio before expanding into spread out, sparsely populated, or rural territory where the return on investment is significantly slower. To put the volume of necessary investment into perspective, consider the following facts. Number one, the antennas on cell towers that carry wireless network traffic are all backhauled by fiber optic cables, resulting in the fact that 90% of mobile data traffic travels via wireline networks. Number two, current 4G antennas cover roughly 10 square miles, whereas 5G antennas will cover only 500-750 square feet, as visualized in the below image from the Fiber Broadband Association.
What this means is that for a community to have a 5G network, it will need high capacity fiber cables on every street, and access points with antennas every 200-300 feet, depending on physical obstructions. This is because of fact number 3, the short ranged 5G signals will not pass through buildings or even dense trees. The investment needed to build this infrastructure in every community in the country is stunningly large.
Frankly, even the most deep pocketed telecom companies’ combined capex budgets are insufficient to achieve it. In the above mentioned 2017 report, Deloitte estimates that “To meet future broadband needs, the US needs an estimated $150 billion of fiber infrastructure over the next 5-7 years”. While thus far the MNOs have been able to ride the warm and fuzzy wave of press, the realization that they’ve been serving up a crock of crap will likely begin to blow back on them unless some alternative option surfaces to solve the problem from either the private or public sector. Fortunately for them, a few are brewing.
Future of Broadband
A blend of the following will likely occur in a patchwork of variation across the country, based on local needs, constraints, and politics, with varying degrees of efficacy.
- The federal government will make a large sum of money available to subsidize investment in fiber densification projects that support 5G deployment through a combination of loans and grants. This money, like existing programs such as CAFII and the USDA’s broadband grants, will likely come with a significant amount of strings and hurdles attached. These constraints will be intended to focus the investment in communities most lacking in the necessary infrastructure, but will unintentionally exclude many swaths of underserved areas because eligibility will be based on the flawed mapping used by the FCC. Creation of this program will be largely dependent on cooperation between the political parties and branches of government, and given the political climate in mid 2019, delays seem likely.
- Many States will enact a variety of programs and/or policies in an effort to increase the pace of 5G deployment within their borders. These will take a variety of forms, from States building their own longhaul backbone networks to connect rural communities to one another such as Kentucky attempted, to providing a fund that enables a State’s communities to undertake engineering studies to determine project costs and ROI for building their own infrastructure, as places like Colorado are doing. A similar variety of approaches will be found at the county and municipal level, with some places seeking to build and operate their own infrastructure, and others forming public private partnerships with individual providers, or building dark fiber networks to support future private last mile investment from one or more companies.
- Many companies will leverage their positions with existing Federal and State programs in an effort to lessen their capex burden. For example, AT&T is likely to take advantage of their role as the FirstNet vendor to expand their ability to serve mobile consumer broadband traffic in addition to critical public safety related data traffic.
- In an echo of what occurred in the late 90’s when the MNOs began to primarily utilize 3rd party owned towers for their antennas, new entrants to the marketplace will begin to build privately owned fiber optic broadband infrastructure that the MNOs will begin to make use of through lease agreements. A handful of such companies, including Lit Communities, are breaking ground on projects that may prove to be the catalyst for this particular paradigm to take off. What sets these projects apart from existing similar arrangements for transport and long haul connections offered by companies like Zayo and Fiberlight is that these will be dense, last-mile networks that also include connections to homes and businesses in addition to just cellular backhaul.
Obviously as the CMO of a company whose raison d’etre is building open application fiber optic broadband networks in underserved communities, my opinion on which of the above factors will be most significant is quite biased. But my belief is buttressed by the fact that this approach isn’t solely dependent on a single revenue stream for success. Consider the following.
Fiber optic network infrastructure is amazingly versatile, but typically serves only single or focused use cases, based on who owns and operates it. Fiber owned by the cable companies is used to deliver internet, phone and TV, aka the triple play. Fiber owned by the transportation authority is used to connect traffic signals. Fiber owned by the MNOs is used for backhaul, and so on. But fiber can also be used to detect impending earthquakes. It can be used to monitor water and electricity usage. It underpins all connectivity dependent services and products, from remote surgery, to latency free gaming, to sophisticated surveillance and public safety applications like gunshot detection systems and high definition security cameras.
Our vision is simple: Build the infrastructure to support all these things and more. To create a platform that enables innovation and efficiency to thrive, and that drives technological progress through connectivity. By thinking holistically about what fiber can do, we are creating a marketplace for connectivity that may just make this whole 5G thing actually work.
Learn more about how your community can Get Lit at www.LitCommunities.net