5G momentum could benefit fiber industry too

As Verizon, AT&T and others throw fuel on the hype around 5G, many of the country’s fiber proponents are looking to use the noise around 5G to promote their own network build-out efforts. Their argument: 5G services can’t work without a stout fiber network to handle the traffic generated through superfast 5G connections.

“All across the country right now, major wireless Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are talking to legislators, mayors, regulators, and the press about the potential of 5G wireless services as if they will cure all of the problems Americans face right now in the high-speed access market,” wrote Ernesto Falcon, the legislative counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation public-interest group, in a recent blog post on the association’s site. “In essence, 5G is being aggressively marketed in policy circles because it provides a useful distraction from the fundamental fact that the United States market is missing out on 21stcentury broadband access, affordable prices, and extraordinary advancements coming from fiber to the home (FTTH) networks.”

Falcon essentially argued that 5G technology won’t help bring additional broadband options to Americans in rural areas, many of whom only have access to one wired internet service provider. Falcon contended that fiber is the only reliable mechanism to connect those Americans, and that telecommunication services should be legislatively treated the same as necessities like electricity, water and roads. “We start treating access to the service in the same way we look at essential infrastructure rather than a private luxury,” he maintained.

Falcon and the EFF aren’t the only ones arguing that fiber services are critical, and a critical part of 5G.

“5G and smart cities can only become a reality for all Americans if there is enough fiber infrastructure to support them,” wrote Lisa Youngers, CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association, in a column for Morning Consult. “Deloitte Consulting recently reported that the United States will require an estimated $130 billion to $150 billion in fiber investment over the next five to seven years to adequately support broadband competition, rural coverage and wireless deployments for future network technologies such as 5G.”

Indeed, the Fiber Broadband Association itself released a white paper late last year that found that 1,390,816 miles of fiber would be required to provide full 5G service to just the top 25 metropolitan land areas in the United States, “assuming all of those 5G cells were served by fiber connections.”

Fiber providers themselves have taken up similar arguments.

“Small cells or 5G—it’s still all about the wires and what I refer to as the 6G fiber optic networks that support such advances,” said Mark Shlanta, the CEO of fiber company SDN Communications, which operates a fiber network in locations around South Dakota and the Midwest. Shlanta made his comments (PDF) recently during a Senate hearing on 5G and the potential barriers to the technology.

“If I’m going to use my smartphone to send a message to my mother across town or my sister, who lives in South Korea, nearly all that communication will travel fiber in the ground or under the ocean; it’s only the very last part of the connection—from the handset to the tower—that is wireless. Today’s 4G and tomorrow’s 5G wireless do not exist without the 6G fiber that empowers them,” Shlanta added

To be clear, 5G players like AT&T and Verizon are also touting their fiber networks as a key element in their nascent 5G services. “Fiber is the backbone of 5G, and we have one of the nation's largest fiber networks. Including businesses, we pass about 18 million customer locations today and are expanding that to more than 22 million locations by next year,” AT&T’s John Donovan said during AT&T’s quarterly earnings call with analysts this week.

“Our network preparation for nationwide 5G deployment requires deep fiber resources, a vast array of small cells, critical spectrum holdings and mobile edge computing capabilities. All of which we have been assembling for years,” echoed Verizon’s CFO Matt Ellis this week on his carrier’s quarterly conference call.

However, the EFF’s Falcon pointed out that AT&T’s fiber efforts stem directly from the conditions placed on the company as part of its acquisition of DirecTV. And Verizon’s own fiber efforts come after the company offloaded a significant chunk of its fiber operations to Frontier—though, to be clear, Verizon has said it continues to build fiber connections in specific locations in order to aid its 5G and wireless network buildout efforts.

Nonetheless, operators’ emphasis on fiber doesn’t come as a surprise. After all, the nation’s core internet transport network is build primarily out of fiber connections among major U.S. cities—and virtually all wireless traffic collected today by the tens of thousands of cellular towers around the country is ultimately backhauled through this transport network. But with 5G, those fiber connections could become even more important considering the vast amounts of data that 5G connections promise to support. Thus, most 5G providers are looking to connect their cell towers and small cells directly to fiber backhaul—instead of a microwave or other type of connection—in order to stay on top of their growing transport needs.

The FCC, for its part, hasn’t ignored the fiber market. Chairman Ajit Pai for example wrote in September that “we’ll also need a lot more fiber optic lines to connect all these small cells to the networks’ core.”

Further, some fiber proponents have cheered recent FCC actions in the fiber arena. “Thankfully the FCC has already taken steps to remove unnecessary barriers to innovation. Just this summer, FCC Chairman Pai paved the way for the adoption of the One-Touch-Make-Ready rule, which will make it easier to attach equipment to telephone poles and help propel fiber broadband deployment throughout the country,” wrote Youngers of the Fiber Broadband Association.

But Youngers and other fiber proponents content that the FCC and other regulators could do more to promote the buildout of fiber networks—and that such regulations would therefore aid in the rollout of 5G. “There is still work to do to make the United States the global leader in 5G. So as we look ahead to the next generation of wireless network technologies and smart cities, policymakers at all levels of government and industry need to work together to ensure that there is plenty of fiber broadband infrastructure available for the United States to lead on 5G,” Youngers wrote.

Similarly, the EFF’s Falcon wrote that federal, state and local legislators could speed the build-out of additional fiber for 5G by allowing multiple providers—including startups and municipalities—to enter markets and access networks currently controlled by cable and telco providers. Local fiber providers, ranging from Sonic to Socket, have made the same contention: They’ve even teamed with trade group Incompas to launch an advocacy website—Bridge 2 Broadband—to argue their point.

It’s no surprise that fiber proponents are pushing for federal and local regulations that are more friendly to fiber providers. After all, 5G operators have managed to grab the spotlight this year from a policy perspective—most recently the Trump administration held a 5G summit that assembled key policy makers from the FCC, NTIA and Congress. Further, the FCC has moved forward with a number of proceedings in recent months geared toward speeding the deployment of 5G network technology.

Such actions appear to be motivated in part by the notion that the United States is in a race to 5G with China, and that a leading position in 5G is a matter of U.S. national security. Thus, fiber companies may be hoping to draft onto the political momentum behind 5G by pointing out that fiber is a key element of 5G services.