Fiber: Inextricably linked with 5G connectivity

One of the most important components of 5G wireless networks is not wireless at all. It’s fiber.

Fiber deployed both aerially and underground is expected to be essential for 5G networks and the high-speed broadband services they will provide. Indeed, fiber is likely to serve as the backbone upon which next-generation wireless networks and services are built.

Fiber deployments face challenges related to right-of-way (ROW) access, permitting procedures and staffing. With a few best practices, however, fiber companies, the telecom industry and municipalities can work together to promote transparency, foster trust among stakeholders, take advantage of cost savings and efficiencies, and ultimately provide the most advanced connectivity possible to those who need it most – citizens and businesses across the country.

The Wireless Infrastructure Association convened a working group to explore the current state of fiber, its role in future wireless networks and the challenges fiber deployments currently face. The group produced a white paper expanding upon these objectives titled “Fiber: An Essential Facet of the Connected Community.” The paper is available to download in WIA’s Resource Center along with more than a dozen other white papers.

“5G network design requires the use of more fiber to improve network coverage, capacity, and quality, because other options, like traditional copper transport and wireless backhauling, cannot scale to the massive amount of data that requires backhaul,” according to the report. “In 2018, the world generated 33 zettabytes of data, which represents enough information to fill around 33 million human brains. This massive and ever-expanding demand for data transfer, compute and storage is driving the need for networks that leverage extremely dense topologies to deliver not only maximized accessibility, but optimized capacity as well.”

Fiber has been used for years to provide more traditional data backhaul, but these networks appear to be evolving to a topology that includes not only fiber backhaul pipes but also fiber fronthaul connections that will bring dense capacity to the street, businesses and homes.

Because this trend is relatively new, municipalities and local governments are still developing plans and processes for dealing with zoning requests related to placing small cells and antennas on light poles and street furniture as well as allowing for digging into streets and sidewalks to bring fiber to this wireless infrastructure.

The fiber deployment process, according to the paper, can be divided into a few distinct stages, including:

  • The pre-planning administrative phase, which includes negotiations and agreements with pole owners that specify terms and conditions, costs and timelines.
  • The make-ready process, which prepares the pole or street furniture to receive power and communications equipment.
  • Underground planning, which includes assessing existing underground fiber links and ability to access underground conduits for upgrades and new deployments.
  • Construction, which can range from nine months to a year and is commonly hindered by lack of skilled labor.

As with any project, best practices can help smooth out bumps, speed timelines, prevent unforeseen costs and build a strong relationship among all players. The paper outlines several fiber deployment best practices, including:

  • Fostering robust communication among players, including utilities, existing attachers, municipal and state entities and other interested partners.
  • Understanding challenges with resource-constrained permitting and engineering departments and developing creative ways to assist with reviews. This is particularly important during COVID-19, which has strained many of local planning departments due to furloughs and budget shortfalls.
  • Controlling make-ready costs by working to eliminate mark-up costs and limiting restoration costs to those actually incurred.
  • Maintaining flexibility among key stakeholders to allow for well-informed decisions to be made that will benefit overall costs and timeline of projects.
  • Making sure timeframes for review and construction are clear and transparent.

The Fiber Broadband Association hosted a webinar featuring report authors Rebecca Hussey, Managing Counsel, Utility Relations at Crown Castle, and Jeffrey Strenkowski, Vice President, deputy General Counsel of Governmental Affairs at Unity Group, along with WIA President and CEO Jonathan Adelstein to discuss the findings of the paper.

Other authors of the report include Pat Foster, Assistant Vice President, Global Public Policy at AT&T; Ray LaChance, Co-Founder and CEO of ZenFi Networks; Deron Leight, Vice President, Celerity Integrated Services Inc.; and Brandon Reed, Vice President of Underlying Rights and Government Relations, Zayo.


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