AFL Blog - Let There Be Light

By Seán Adam
VP, Market Strategy & Innovation at AFL

5G has become a household term. Beyond the trade journals and market reports, mainstream media is even talking about it: the transitional nature – the monumental opportunity –the world envisioned in the Jetson’s – flying cars and robot housekeepers – all interconnected by a vast wireless infrastructure.  Major telecoms across the globe are in a race to be the first: the first 5G provider of fixed-wireless broadband, the first offering enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB), the first 5G national network. If we believe the hype, we’ll be Ubering (yes, it’s a verb now) through the sky tomorrow. But where does reality end and hope, desire, and vision begin?
If we’re honest with ourselves, no one knows where the reality is. The one constant of 5G: there’s very few constants. No standard approach – no cookbook network deployment plan which a provider can follow. We don’t even have a 5G non-standalone core. Sure, the functionality in today’s radio core will give us high bandwidth, but the transformational capabilities, which enable ultra-reliable, low latency and mass-machine communication (URLLC, and mMTC respectively) applications are still 1-2 years away.
So, what do we know? We know that 5G requires a couple of key fundamental elements: available spectrum and a strong wireline communication infrastructure.
Availability of usable spectrum is one of the key enablers and limiters to the 5G ecosystem. Governments around the world are developing plans to auction off spectrum. Auctioning off spectrum can be a very lucrative business for many governments. But, beyond just money, many governments look to maintain market equity and address the complete broadband needs of their citizens. The EU has a broadband commission focused on making Europe a gigabit economy by 2025 built upon uninterrupted 5G service in all urban and major transport areas and access to 100Mbps to all households. The United States has taken a position to be a leader in this space and have made spectrum available ahead of many other countries. A recent spectrum auction in Germany garnered €6.55 billion from four operators (Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone, Telefonica and Drillisch). But the cost was so steep, that these operators now find themselves short of capital and are delaying actual network buildouts to 2020 and beyond.
That second element might seem a bit odd for a discussion and technology which seems to be all about wireless. But wireless happens to only define the final few meters of the communication path. Nearly all of the communications to enable these usage cases will travel the vast majority of their distance over a deep, dense fiber-rich infrastructure. As Verizon’s CTO, Kyle Malady, stated at the Wells Fargo Telecom 5G Forum, “wireless becomes fiber with antennas hanging off of it.” Verizon reports that it is deploying 1,400 miles of fiber cable per month in support of their 5G strategy. Fiber has always been a mainstay in the backhaul networks – the regional and national backbones of companies such as Verizon, AT&T, Telus, Deutsch Telecom. But the access space has been a mix of varying technologies from DSL copper, to hybrid fiber-coax (HFC) and DOCSIS, to fiber directly to the premise. But 5G looks to redefine this access space. To meet the bandwidth and latency requirements of the “Jetson’s” world we are fast moving toward, a fiber network is essential. While HFC and DOCSIS will play a role, the real enabler of 5G’s promise is an FTTX access network, with 5G small cells being among the “Xs” along with homes, businesses and DOCSIS nodes.
Beyond just the fiber, we need to look to the mass number of small cells and the level of interconnection which will be needed. There will be millions of fiber connectors throughout the ecosystem, and hundreds of millions of fiber splices. Each one has to be right – provide an ultra-low-loss connection – or the applications will not be effectively served.  In addition, designers and installers of these networks will face the challenge of limited space in and on the small cell sites and the environmental extremes these small cells will be exposed to – from heat of the summer to the depths of the winter – rain, sleet, snow, wind. The connectivity challenge isn’t for the faint of heart.
This multi-part blog series will touch on key elements of the emerging 5G ecosystem and the infrastructure elements which are needed to make this transformation real: from optical infrastructure, to the challenges and opportunities of mmWave technology, to addressing the power and communication challenge of mass small cell deployments, to how 5G will transform not only the telecom space but also our manufacturing industries, our cities and homes, and even our electric grid. Join us on this wonderful journey as we "Light Up 5G".