I have often said that the goal of any wireless network is to get the wireless signal onto a fiber as quickly as possible. Think about it. This axiom has gone unchallenged until recent developments in alternate technologies (a.k.a., microwave) for 5G transport technologies. Why? Fiber has a clear technology advantage over the microwave. The customer experience on wireless versus fiber is unchallenged. So finally, it comes down to the age-old argument that fiber is too expensive to deploy. Let’s explore that one.
Figure 1: Estimate of Annual U.S. Route Miles - Fiber FTTX Placement. Source: RVA, February 2019
The Fiber Broadband Association in conjunction with RVA LLC has been tracking fiber deployments in the U.S. since 1996. As illustrated in Figure 1, the volume of fiber route miles being deployed today is expected to take a steep climb up and to the right in the next few years. The drivers for that hockey stick growth is largely “fiber to outdoor small cells” (i.e., 5G).
From a fiber deployment perspective, 5G has an advantage over previous cellular architectures that have nothing to do with the underlying primitives that define the 5G specification. Rather, this advantage is one of timing in the market. 5G has the luxury of riding the third wave of fiber economics. Here’s what I mean.
The first wave of fiber came in the late 90s and early 2000’s. Fiber was deployed primarily in greenfield housing projects, Hybrid Fiber Coax (HFC), and long-haul networks. Times were tough in the early days. Splicing fiber was a requirement for any deployment. This added cost and time to fiber projects. During this phase, training for certified fiber optic splicing technicians dominated the craft scene.
The second wave of large scale fiber deployment began when Verizon launched its FiOS network builds starting in 2003 for Fiber-to-the-Home. This kicked off a very large buildout of fiber deployments by a number of service providers over the next decade that continues to this day. Toward the end of this second wave, the industry developed better techniques for connecting fiber-based devices without requiring splicing at every point in the route path. This is called plug-and-play (PNP) technology and it continues to make a big impact on reducing the business case for fiber rollouts.
The third wave of fiber deployment starts now with the introduction of 5G. The 5G wireless network operators have all signaled that they are laying the foundation of the network using high-count fibers. With the advent of PNP, these fiber networks are now positioned to be some of the most efficient business cases ever considered. PNP allows a lower cost labor component to be factored into the business case.
In December 2018, the Small Cell Forum issued the results of a survey identifying what was top-of-mind for decision-makers deploying 5G or small cells point.
There's a reason people want plug-and-play (PNP) deployments. That reason has to do with the available employment force. The skilled labor shortage is intensifying. According to a recent report: 81 percent of contractors are asking current skilled workers to do more work, 70 percent of contractors struggle to meet deadlines, 63 percent of contractors experience increased costs for new work and 40 percent of contractors actually end up rejecting new projects because of the lack of skilled labor available for these projects.
That's a big deal. Also, millennials are three times more likely to have more turnover than the generations before them. So when you have a labor shortage and the likelihood that the people you hire for your construction and engineering firms are going to leave quicker, it basically forces this move towards providing services and products that require less skilled labor. And what that means for fiber deployments is we need to get away from the requirement to have a certified fiber optic splicer technician in every location. Plug-and-Play is the way to go. It allows less skilled labor to connect fibers using a tool-less operation that is high-quality, repeatable, and reliable.
In my opinion, the economics of fiber deployment has reached a point in which the return on the business case is more affordable than ever before. Alternate technologies like microwave may be appealing in the short run due to economics but fiber is clearly the best technology to use in rolling out any next gen architecture. Fiber is future proof. 5G and other emerging technologies will cause a shakeup in the fiber world and the infrastructure needs to be in place to handle the adoption of emerging technologies. Using techniques like Plug-and-Play is the best path forward for connecting all of the wireless elements with fiber. These techniques have been perfected with the decades’ long FTTH deployments.
5G, get ready to ride the third wave of fiber deployment.