Mallinson: Duct and pole access essential for 1000-times growth with 5G

Keith Mallinson

In recently-published "initial conclusions" to Ofcom's Strategic Review of Digital Communications the UK regulator presented its strategy to "make it easier for competing providers to build their own fibre networks, across as much of the UK as is practicable, by providing them with access to [BT] Openreach's network of underground ducts and telegraph poles." This is important to the development and growth of both fixed and mobile services.

Achieving predicted 1,000-times global mobile traffic growth from 2010 to 2025 is feasible, but dependent on extensive fibre and new network equipment deployments to provide increased coverage and capacity with mobile broadband evolution including LTE and 5G. This requires plentiful, low-cost supply for places to put the fibre and equipment. Opening competitive access to the ducts and poles of fixed operators and other utilities including power, water, sewerage and transport is essential for backhaul and for locating numerous additional network antennas.

One third of the way there
Mobile data traffic growth is on track for the 1,000-fold increase by 2025 I predicted in May 2011. I might not have been the first to make a 1,000-time prediction, but I do not recall anyone predicting how long it would take to get there. Figure 1 compares my predicted trend with figures in Ericsson's quarterly Mobility Reports. As anticipated, demand is being fuelled by orders-of-magnitude reductions in prices per gigabyte consumed as average use levels rise. According to Digital Fuel Monitor, monthly per-capital mobile data consumption ranged from 0.6 GB in Germany to 11.6 GB in Finland at an average price of €3.05 ($3.34) per GB with 4G in the European Union in 2H2015. Prior to the introduction of mobile broadband with HSDPA a decade ago, the quantum of measurement was one thousand times lower: pricing was about how much you paid per megabyte and data consumption was miniscule in comparison to today.

Figure 1: Predicted versus Actual Traffic Growth

The ongoing rollout of LTE worldwide and its enhancement with LTE Advanced, including carrier aggregation, LTE Advanced Pro and the introduction of 5G networks from 2020 will help ensure growth momentum is maintained, but additional new radio equipment and spectrum are insufficient. Fronthaul to antennas, backhaul to core networks, and everything in between requires massive amounts of fixed communications capacity. For example, multiple strands of dark fibre can be required in some designs to serve "massive MIMO" antenna arrays or numerous small cells in densely-populated or heavily-pedestrian areas. The small cells required for densification, using the frequencies above 20 GHz envisaged for 5G that have very limited propagation, may need to be located only tens of metres apart, on street furniture, for example, with connections to the rest of the network by fibre or wireless.

The UK's low-fibre diet is unhealthy
The supply of ducts and poles for fibre and places to locate network equipment must expand massively. Figure 2 -- taken from Ofcom's report -- shows how very little fibre has been deployed in many major nations, including the UK in particular. It seems BT tries to protect its existing copper investments rather than to allow them to become obsolete with competition from its own or competitors' fibre offerings.

Figure 2: Fibre Coverage to the Premises in OECD Nations, end-2015

Ofcom has shied away from forcing "structural separation" of Openreach from BT to improve matters. Instead, it intends to stick with the existing "functional separation" and to "reform the relationship between Openreach and BT Group to give the former greater independence and autonomy." I presume it believes this will encourage Openreach to do a better and more competitive job in opening up its supply of ducts, poles, dark and lit fibre, as well as copper-based offerings, to rival wholesalers and customers serving end users including alternative access providers and mobile operators.

UK mobile operators have fared better with fibre than other customers. Nevertheless, if widespread visions for growth with 5G vision are to be achieved, including fast speeds, high capacities and ultra-reliability, open access to significantly increased supply of passive infrastructure and lit fibre from BT's regulated Openreach division at low costs will be every bit as important as deploying the latest and most advanced radio access network equipment.

I remain optimistic about my growth predictions and visions for 5G; but with some reservations about the UK -- a nation in which one still cannot generally obtain a mobile signal in the capital city's underground "tube" system.

Keith Mallinson is a leading industry expert, analyst and consultant. Solving business problems in wireless and mobile communications, he founded consulting firm WiseHarbor in 2007. Find WiseHarbor on Twitter @WiseHarbor.