Ubiquitous connectivity. It is a concept that is moving closer and closer to reality as wireless networks in the United States and around the world begin to evolve to 5G. In the near future, wireless networks will connect not only people but also cars, appliances, machines and industrial equipment, transforming the way we communicate and interact with each other and our environment.
To fuel ubiquitous connectivity, the wireless industry is embarking on a massive infrastructure buildout aimed at densifying existing cellular networks that for years have relied on macrocellular tower sites covering large geographic areas. Network densification will require localized infrastructure, such as small cells and distributed antenna systems, to fill in coverage and capacity at the street level as well as inside buildings.
Underlying this vertical infrastructure will be thousands of miles of new fiber that will interconnect wireless sites, homes and businesses. These fiber networks, which will serve as the high-speed freeways on which the next generation of data will travel, will require an extensive buildout to match the buildout of infrastructure above the ground.
ZenFi Networks, a leading fiber provider serving the New York and New Jersey metro region, is keenly aware of the coming swell of demand for fiber. The company’s 800-mile fiber network currently connects more than 2,000 of the nearly 6,000 wireless sites it has under contract. And that number is growing month by month, according to ZenFi Networks.
Ray LaChance, co-founder and CEO of ZenFi Networks, recently sat down with project management firm Sitetracker to talk about this telecommunications tipping point and what the industry can do to deploy the fiber needed to fuel 5G networks and expanded on his thoughts in an interview with WIA.
How has ZenFi Networks’ footprint grown in the past five years?
“We started the company in 2014 to focus on becoming the leading provider of telecommunications infrastructure with a focus on mobile network densification for the evolving 5G ecosystem in the region. And we’ve done what we set out to accomplish. We’ve built nearly 800 miles of fiber-optic network, we have 45 colocation facilities on our network, 125 on-net enterprise buildings, 2,000+ curbside wireless sites, and two monopoles in New Jersey that serve financial exchange traffic at NASDAQ in Carteret, N.J., and the New York Stock Exchange in Mahwah, N.J.”
In the areas you serve, what is the current state of fiber buildout?
“There’s been a lot of fiber built over the past 30 years in the New York Metro region. But these fiber networks were built to solve a completely different problem than we have today. Take the example of enterprise data center connections. There are a group of enterprise buildings that are miles apart. They’re all connected together and back to data centers. There’s not a lot of connections, but there’s high capacity between sites. That’s what I consider a backhaul network infrastructure. The new problem — enabling massive densification of the wireless network — requires a completely new type of fronthaul network. One that is highly accessible and high-capacity, aggregated to edge data centers and interconnected with high-capacity backhaul. This cohesive architecture is the infrastructure ZenFi Networks has built, and the one that all providers will need to evolve to in order to meet growing wireless demands.”
How will fiber networks have to evolve from a backhaul architecture to serve 5G?
“In a city like New York, ZenFi Networks is asked by the mobile network operators to drop antenna locations at almost every single intersection across all five boroughs. Those intersections are often only 250 feet apart from each other. We believe that the old fiber infrastructure will sit in place and manage backhaul needs of connecting edge data centers to the mobile operator core, but there’s an entirely new complementary fiber network that has to be built and it’s the fronthaul network. These cables can be 864 strands, 1,728 strands or even larger — they just need to be able to access every single intersection, every 250 feet. The new fronthaul infrastructure will be high capacity like legacy backhaul networks but will also be highly accessible, enabling closely spaced laterals interconnecting antenna locations to edge data centers.”
How do we get from the backhaul networks of today to the fronthaul networks we’ll need tomorrow?
“The backhaul networks aren’t forward compatible. What I mean by that is they can’t be retrofitted to become a fronthaul network. The backhaul network is a piece of the puzzle, an important piece which we’ll continue to use, but the fronthaul network is a parallel network that providers need to build to support densification. Since these backhaul networks weren’t meant to be fragmented and accessed every couple hundred feet, they can’t support the demands of the carriers to densify their networks. To put this in perspective, infrastructure providers like ZenFi are being asked to drop multiple fibers to every intersection within Manhattan. That could be 12+ strands of fiber dropped every 250 feet. Not only do legacy backhaul networks lack the splice points to do this, the underlying conduit ducts in a metro market like NY can’t support the lateral cables that would be required to bring those fibers from the intersection back to splice cases spaced 2,000+ feet apart. The only way to solve this problem is to build out the fronthaul network. We started this four years ago, but we’re starting to see others evolve in our market as they find the physical challenges and limitations of the backhaul network to support this mobile application.”
How is network densification accelerating?
“Five years ago, companies were presented with 300 poles available for rental from New York City per reservation period. But, five years ago companies weren’t taking advantage of all the poles or reservations periods. That’s changed drastically. Now, companies are renting all 2,400 available poles per reservation period and we are asking the City for two or three reservation periods per year. Right now, any new poles the City makes available, a carrier will take immediately. If we could pick up 1,000 new poles, we would. The year before last was the biggest we had — the biggest year we’ve ever seen. Last year was even bigger than that. This year the demand is even bigger.”
What are the biggest challenges the industry faces in bringing 5G to market?
“The most pressing challenges for the telecommunications industry are getting the fronthaul fiber built out and site acquisition completed. We’ve already spoken about the fronthaul network, so let’s focus on the site acquisition for a moment. In a city like New York, the process for getting a site from RF approval to turn up can be 9 to 12 months. Meanwhile, the mobile network operators need capacity upgrades to their network today. Neutral providers of underlying infrastructure can help solve this problem by leveraging existing sites for colocation of multiple service providers. Cities and municipalities can also help by opening up street furniture, relaxing siting criteria, and increasing the frequency of open periods to reserve poles. Once we have the base infrastructure in place with backhaul and fronthaul, and public-private partnerships for siting, the rest is easy. Fronthaul networks allow carriers to densify as they need, and clear processes from municipalities allow for transparent and realistic build timelines. I think we’re moving in the right direction, but there’s a lot of work we all need to do in order to make 5G a reality.”
Will small cities and rural areas require the same network infrastructure and 5G buildout model as larger cities?
“Eventually smaller cities, and then suburban and more rural areas, will require the same infrastructure for 5G. For the moment the focus is on the large cities because that’s where there is a capacity issue on the 4G network. As carriers are adding capacity, they’re looking forward to 5G and how they can invest in infrastructure today to support these future rollouts. However, for us to deliver the full promise of 5G, there needs to be ubiquitous coverage and high capacity throughout our country – in both urban and rural areas. That 5G infrastructure will continue to require the three main communications infrastructure components: fronthaul fiber, backhaul fiber, and edge data centers.”
What advice would you give carriers as they work with municipalities to bring 5G to fruition?
“The last thing a municipality wants is to see is an intersection with four corners with each carrier on a different pole in that same intersection. That’s an inefficient use of the municipal resource. We think it’s important for carriers to work with municipalities to minimize visual pollution, and on the flipside – municipalities need to work with carriers to understand the technological requirements of form factors to fully deliver the benefits of 5G to communities. Each side needs to be open to compromise and I think leveraging companies like ours that understand both perspectives and can act as a neutral provider of infrastructure can be a great benefit to municipalities and carriers alike.”
How can ZenFi Networks help carriers achieve 5G success?
“The biggest challenge for carriers is finding the underlying infrastructure to support a 5G buildout. As we’ve discussed, there’s plenty of fiber in the ground, but much of that fiber is unusable to solve carriers’ problems. Leveraging our unique fronthaul architecture improves speed to market and helps decrease overall costs of deployment. In addition to the fiber network, we also offer wireless siting solutions which is another big challenge that carriers face. Finding sites to place antennas and working through the process with municipalities is always a challenge. Companies like ZenFi are working with municipalities day in and day out on multiple projects, so carriers can come to us for their site needs. We are experts in working with municipalities, so carriers don’t have to and the process is much smoother. Our goal is to make metropolitan areas and the surrounding regions more connected. We create an environment that makes municipalities comfortable, is beneficial to carriers, and, ultimately, provides the most value from the resources available to the residents of the region. Ultimately, our goal is to provide the base infrastructure needed to support the carriers in their deployment of wireless technologies. We do this through a unique fiber architecture, wireless siting solutions, and edge data centers connecting the nodes back to core command and control. We believe we can help our customers deploy their 5G technologies in the NY/NJ region faster, and better, than any other infrastructure provider, and we look forward to the continued opportunity to work with these carriers and improve connectivity within the region.”
Ray LaChance is co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of ZenFi Networks where he applies his leadership and proven industry expertise to build and deliver innovative communication infrastructure solutions to enterprise, carrier and wireless mobility providers in the New York and New Jersey metro markets. In this role, LaChance oversees all aspects of business operations for the company that recently merged with Cross River Fiber, and effectively
leads a team of nimble, forward thinking experts to solve clients’ network challenges created by the proliferation of mobile data. In addition to his role at ZenFi, LaChance is also a founding member of Metro Network Services L.L.C., a company focused on fiber optic and mobile network planning, engineering, and deployment solutions for mobile network operators, tower owners and telecommunications service providers throughout the New York metro market.
LaChance is a Network Technology industry veteran with more than 30 years of experience managing teams that design, build and operate complex, high-capacity communication networks for large enterprises, carriers and wireless mobility providers. Prior to ZenFi and Metro|NS, he served as President and CEO of Lexent Metro Connect, LLC from 2004 to its successful sale in December 2010 to Lightower Fiber Networks. LaChance was also the Co-Founder of Realtech Systems Corp., an enterprise network integration and professional services firm, where he served as President and CEO. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science from the State University of New York at Albany.
See additional thought leadership provided by LaChance in the following white papers produced by WIA’s Innovation & Technology Council: Feeding the Beast How Mobile Operators are Racing to Keep Up with Insatiable Demand for Mobile Broadband and Wireless Infrastructure as the Foundation of Smart Cities and Communities.
Also published on Medium.