How is fiber a more economical investment for today's rural Broadband? For starters, look at "Technology Lifecycle"
July 26, 2022
What does Technology Lifecycle mean, and why is it important to Rural Broadband Planning? Basically, part of planning for any long-term investment into a telecommunications technology should consider how long a technology, or parts of it will remain useful, and what kind of costs should be planned for when it is time to refresh or replace the systems or its parts.
If you are older than most “Millennials,” then you have likely witnessed firsthand, the end of the “landline” and the shift to cellular. However, the copper wires that used to connect that old telephone (even the ones with dials) are still there, and in many cases, are still being used for your home phone calls today. Yes, that old copper wire that used to connect a phone hanging on a wall with a dial on it, is still the same wire that is connecting your latest version of smartphones to the outside world. I am not saying it does a good job of that, but it may still be your only option if you like living away from the city.
There are still far more copper telephone lines in place today, especially in rural areas, than any other media, and much of it is likely 40 to 50 (or more) years old. When copper lines were first built, they were, in comparison to today's technology, only meant for simple analog telephones. When digital phones came out, with a little tweaking, the same copper wire worked for them. Then, as the “World Wide Web” began to catch on, it was figured out that, higher capacity digital technologies like “ISDN” and “DSL” could work on these same wires, they just needed a little more bandwidth, sparking the term "broadband". With a little more conditioning of those same copper wires, the telcos started touting Broadband (which not only brings higher speed data services, but also supports services like “Voice over IP” and Wi-Fi calling on your smartphone, from inside your home). But the bandwidth and distance limitations of twisted pair copper wires provided a very narrow and limited version of broadband (like well under 1% of what coax and fiber technologies can provide) and have now been pushed well beyond their limits. These digital technologies, like DSL that depend on old telephone wires, cannot compete with newer, and higher speed technologies, and cannot meet the demand for high-speed internet in the home today. The end of using copper telephone lines for everything we need in today's society, is upon us. But the history of this infrastructure establishes a good basis for predicting the lifecycle potential of the next two generations of broadband technologies. So, although it is nearing the end of widespread use, the copper twisted pair cabling used to support a variety of different technologies for over a century, established that we can build a cabling infrastructure outdoors, that can be adapted to technology changes, and can physically last for 50 or more years.
Community Antenna Television (CATV)
CATV, or Cable TV began to emerge in 1948, and ironically, was first built only in rural areas. Since TV sales were dependent upon being able to pick up a broadcaster’s signal, TV shops were stringing wires from their “Community Antennas” to homes that could not get a good signal because of their location out in the country or in the mountains. By the 60’s, the technology had developed and standardized on using Coax Cable which became the basis for all Cable TV systems today. It wasn’t until the end of the 70’s, that a boom in Cable TV construction started in urban and suburban areas. Metropolitan areas did not really have a need for cable since TV broadcasters were mostly transmitting from towers within those areas, and simple antennas at your home picked up the three or four channels that were available. But as satellite TV and other broadcast options started to emerge, Cable became a lucrative business opportunity. The systems quickly evolved from 12 channel systems to 160 or more channels in just a few years, all using analog technology, on Coax cable. The Coax had the bandwidth capacity to support that expansion then, and as Cable TV has migrated to all digital formats, the broadband capacity of the coax in the 1980's is providing literally 100’s of channel options today, and more importantly, the inclusion of Cable Modem, bringing the first real high speed Broadband Internet into homes and businesses. A lot of areas are still functioning with the same Coax that was strung on poles and buried in neighborhoods in the 70’s and 80’s, with changes only in the electronic components, and the technologies at either end. This has proven that Coax based Broadband infrastructure, like its twisted pair predecessor, is robust enough to physically last 40 to 50 years and had the bandwidth capability to support thousands of digital signals on a single conductor. But the capacity of coax won't be able to keep up with what we can transmit on a single 9-micron glass fiber, the standard being used today in all outdoor fiber optic networks.
Passive Optical Networks (Fiber)
Passive Optical Networks (PON’s), based on that 9-micron (single-mode) glass fiber, are the most common new builds being deployed today, and it is being built by all types of Internet Service Providers (ISPs), Cable TV companies, Telephone Companies, and private operators for just about every type of communication requirement there is. There are a lot of technical design variations to the PON, but like Twisted Pair and Coax, the key factor relative to Lifecycle is the ability to support all of today’s variations of the technologies, and easily migrate to, and support future technologies.
The designs for most PON configurations are quite simple, much like the old, twisted pair designs for telephone. Basically, there is a dedicated fiber (or two) from the main host location to each end point (your home for example). A single strand of fiber can be a dozen or more miles long, and still deliver the full-service offerings reliably to each subscriber. The word “Passive” in PON means that the only electricity needed to make a connection, is the electricity at the transmitter, and the electricity at the receiver. Everything in between is un-powered, light waves passing through a glass fiber. Bundles of these fibers are bound together using the same materials and constructed with the same methods that have been proven on copper and coax-based systems for over a century. So, based on that similarity alone, today’s fiber will easily last 50 years into the future. Since it is passive, upgrading to future technologies, is simply just changing the electronics at either end. Further, the fiber optic glass being used today has been tested in the lab to reach more than 100,000 times the gigabit capacity being delivered to most fibered homes today. From an infrastructure, and performance view, the lifecycle of a fiber should easily extend to, and perhaps well beyond 50 years.
The lifecycle of wireless technologies is a little different than wired infrastructure, mostly because wireless is the air around us, which will never change. So, when upgrading to the next generation wireless, pretty much everything is replaced; sometimes referred to as a "forklift upgrade". When talking about wireless technology for consumers, you have two general categories, Cellular and Wi-Fi. Two very different technologies, but both play a vital role in today's online society.
When a new family of wireless technologies emerge, there are a couple of common elements that may be re-usable, Towers (mostly cellular), and the Fiber (or copper) Infrastructure that connects them. Yes, even with wireless, we must be thinking about how it all connects, and today that is mostly Fiber in the cellular world, and still copper cable with indoor W-Fi networks. Perhaps instead of calling it "wireless" we should call it "less-wire." Because no matter what type of wireless technology it is, somewhere in the background is some copper or optical fiber connecting it all together.
We already mentioned that Fiber can last 50 years, and the other element, Towers, can also last that long if properly maintained. Pretty much everything else, including antennas, are typically replaced.
3G was the first cellular “Broadband” standard, introduced in 2000. Variations of 4G started in 2010, and 5G has been the promise since before 2020. 6G is in the labs already, but will it be 2030 before we see it? Probably not. 5G has not delivered universally the way that it was promised, so the quest will continue to find faster and more reliable wireless methods.
IEEE 802.11 is the Standards Body that is more widely known as “Wi-Fi.” Since its first two published standards in 1999 (A&B), it has gone through 4 more “generational” updates, and today is at 802.11AX, or now known as “Wi-Fi 6” (for the 6th Generation). Most of the Wi-Fi services still being offered in outdoor wide area applications is Wi-Fi 4, or 802.11N. But new generations of Wi-Fi seem to follow a 3-to-6-year cycle.
The Point is:
The passive fiber infrastructure being built today will physically last 50 or more years. It could actually be a lot more; there are copper phone lines that were built before 1960 that are still in service today. From a technical performance standpoint, we know that fiber has tested to more than 100,000 times the highest capacities that are in common use today. Thus, the performance factor is a "truckload of apples to an orange" comparison to wireless. So, it is easy to say that an investment today in a fiber infrastructure is a 50-year investment, easily offering a 50-year lifecycle.
Cellular and other licensed fixed wireless technologies (3G, 4G-LTE, etc.) have not lasted more than 10 years before their technical performance was becoming obsolete to consumer demands (and we're being generous with some of them). 5G was a promise for years, but did start gaining any traction until 2020, and has not lived up to the expectations for Rural coverage. Unlicensed Wi-Fi technologies are closer to a maximum 6-year lifespan. Wi-Fi will still be integral for that last 100' connection to many of your devices, but simply does not work anymore for large scale outdoor applications. And each generation of wireless, licensed or not, is that "forklift" upgrade we mentioned, everything has to be replaced. Which means the funding required to deploy these technologies today, will likely be needed again each time a new generation emerges.
Compared side by side, a typical fiber installation in a home today can provide a 1 gigabit data service, whereas the best fixed wireless offerings to the home today are suggesting 25% of that (250 megabits per second), and that is difficult to demonstrate consistently on any large scale. Yes, some technologies (e.g. UWB 5G) can demonstrate pretty high-speed data rates in some of the densest urban population centers, but that represents less than 1% of the country's geography that we need to cover.
So, to invest in a technology that will physically last 50 or more years and provide the bandwidth that is hard to comprehend ever being able to grow out of, it becomes very easy to see what makes the most economic sense. Especially considering the funding sources being contemplated today are not likely to come back every five to ten years to finance new generations of wireless.