Fibre and wireless are often seen as rival technologies, but they are proving complementary. May Taylor reports that while 5G will likely be the underlying technology managing driverless cars, fibre will be essential to the network

Every few years mobile connectivity undergoes a major evolution – 2G brought voice, 3G brought data, 4G brought faster data. What will 5G bring us? Driverless cars?

Sure, a host of tech and car companies will build the actual driverless cars, but it’s likely they will need a fast network to stop their inventions crashing into each other.

Many people think 5G networks will provide the underlying technology that will enable driverless cars to instantly communicate their location and their next intended move – thus avoiding accidents at busy intersections. That’s because 5G networks will be up to 110 times faster than most cellular connections today. They will have massively reduced latency and significantly more capacity. Even if you prefer to walk, you will still benefit from a 5G network – you will be able to download an entire season of Game of Thrones in seconds.

So, bring it on. Well, you might have to wait a couple of years though. All over the world, telcos are trialling 5G networks and claiming all sorts of breakthroughs, but most are also predicting 5G networks won’t be in market until about 2020. In New Zealand, we’re not immune to 5G fever, with the telco industry here talking up the upgrade.

Here’s what Spark told The Download when approached for a comment on 5G:

“4.5G is an important part of our strategy because it helps us prepare for a 5G future today, keeping up with the changes in the ways people will use wireless technology over the next few years. Because 4.5G combines a range of radio spectrum and uses it more efficiently, we can provide more capacity and speed to our customers. Spark’s plans for 5G are already well advanced and we have now delivered 4.5G to over 20 locations around New Zealand.”

This mix of spectrum and fibre connectivity is thought by many to be essential to the shift to a 5G network. According to a report by Deloitte, published in July 2017 in the US, acquiring large blocks of spectrum was essential in enabling the shift from 2G to 3G and then to 4G, but, while this is still a major element, it is fibre density that is becoming critical.

“Deep fibre can facilitate high-speed access to more homes and more businesses, and support hundreds of thousands of new cell sites and hot spots for 4G and 5G. Previous generations of wireless technology (i.e. 3G and 4G) relied on broader blocks of spectrum and improved spectrum efficiency to generate higher speeds and increased capacity. Increased speed and capacity from 5G will rely more heavily on the use of higher frequencies and [fibre] densification,” the Deloitte report says.

“We are using fixed wireless to deliver a better service in rural areas especially. Because it is 'point to many points', it is more flexible than fibre which is 'point to point'”

Steve Rieger

“Rather than building macro towers with mid or low band spectrum, carriers will deploy lower powered small cells and rely on hotspots, each with a coverage radius measured in metres versus kilometres. Densification of access points with small coverage areas implies that fewer users will share the network capacity produced by 4G or 5G small cells, generating enormous gains.”

In other words, the effective deployment of 5G networks will see multiple small sites connected by fibre broadband.

The Deloitte report, which is focused on the US, notes the country’s poor fibre deployment: “Only 38 percent of homes have a choice of two providers offering speeds of at least 25 Mbps. In rural communities, only 61 percent of the population have access to 25 Mbps wireline broadband, and when they do they can pay as much as a three times the premium over suburban customers.”

In New Zealand, the situation is vastly different. The Ultrafast Broadband programme, one of the country’s largest  

infrastructure programmes, will see 87 percent of New Zealand homes and businesses having access to fibre-to-the-premises by 2022. According to comparison website Broadband Compare, one of the cheapest fibre broadband plans for those connected to the UFB starts at 30Mbps for download and 10Mbps for upload.

A separate programme is underway to improve broadband infrastructure for those living in rural areas. The Rural Broadband Initiative (RBI) is divided into two phases, with phase one having been completed by Chorus and Vodafone in partnership.

Vodafone wholesale director Steve Rieger, who led the RBI phase one project for Vodafone, says the telco built 154 towers over the five years of roll out, connecting around 1000 schools and 39 hospitals and health centres.

For the next phase, RBI2, mobile providers – Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees – have combined to create a new telco called the Rural Connectivity Group (RCG). The RCG was awarded a $250 million contract to build out the network, which will involve the construction of 450 cell phone towers. The towers will, however, be smaller than those deployed as part of RBI1. In addition, around $8 million in funding has been allocated to regional Wireless Internet Service Providers (see sidebar story on page 22).

“We are using fixed wireless to deliver a better service in rural areas especially. Because it is ‘point to many points’, it is more flexible than fibre which is ‘point to point’,” says Rieger.

While fibre connects to every urban cell site, Rieger says it is not always practical in rural areas. The first choice for backhaul (that is the connection from the cell site back to the main network) is fibre, then copper, then digital microwave radio and, lastly, satellite.

While there is unlikely to be an economic need for driverless cars on rural roads, the advent of faster broadband is enabling innovative solutions to be deployed in remote locations.

In the Coromandel’s remote Kauaeranga Valley, which acquired internet and mobile coverage during RBI1, an eco-cell site keeps trampers safe. While down south, in Methven, farmer Craige Mackenzie uses an application accessed via his mobile phone to check the moisture in his farm’s soil, and by doing so has cut water waste by 30 percent.

Whether it is 5G in the cities, or fast broadband in the country, the lines are blurring between wireless and fixed technologies. As Rieger notes: fibre and wireless are complementary, and this is important as “we are moving into a world where capability and performance are going to be very significant.”