Mobile and wireless data are expected to increase a thousandfold over the next decade as more than 50 billion devices, all of which will be able to access and share data, anywhere and any time, connect to the cloud by 2020.
2020 is also the deadline that international mobile operators are giving themselves to launch their 5G networks. Carriers around the world are working tirelessly to ensure that they are not left behind in the race.
The promises of 5G, the term used to describe the next generation of mobile networks that will follow 4G LTE, include faster internet, greater mobile connectivity for businesses and individuals, and the true experience of ‘always on, always available’. It promises to deliver speeds of at least 10 Gbps or higher and has a latency that is mere milliseconds. 5G is all about laying an infrastructure for connected cars, self-driving cars, and an omnipresent ‘Internet of Things’.
Some of the prime objectives or demands that need to be addressed are increased capacity, improved data rate, decreased latency, and better quality of service. To meet these demands, drastic improvements need to be made in cellular network architecture.
When the 5G networks are built, the carriers will have to use more antennae – many more – to get the same coverage as our current networks, and these antennae will need to be connected with fibre for backhaul. It is impossible to talk about 5G without considering the role of fibre optic networks in its architecture. In fact, optics will be the star of the show.
While 5G is a mobile technology that supports mobile users, the network itself is not mobile. 5G will need fibre, and lots of it. If we are going to build these networks, we have to start at the beginning, and that is getting the underlying infrastructure right.
It is important to lay fibre now to small and macro cells, wherever and whenever possible, if these cell sites are to be upgraded to 5G in the coming years. Traditional technologies simply cannot scale to the immense amount of backhaul traffic that’ll be generated by a 5G network.
Fortunately, in South Africa, operators have already started deploying fibre, even though it has been for FTTH to date. It is likely that mobile carriers will capitalise on this as they look at where to launch 5G.
This is a critical reason why communities should make it as easy as possible for operators to lay fibre in their areas, because when 5G is finally launched, operators will look for communities that already have the necessary infrastructure in place.
2020 seems an ambitious timeline, and if South Africa would like to deliver on the 5G vision it will require a concerted and coordinated effort between telecom operators, equipment and components manufacturers, governments and regulators. As always, the demand from consumers will be the driving force behind its progress.