5G technology facilitates mobile Internet connections which are up to 100 times faster than the current 4G standard. The 5G network – when fully rolled out – will be capable of linking billions of devices simultaneously. Of course, we can’t predict which new services and applications will benefit first, and most, from the rollout of 5G. However, we can be sure it is a game-changer, forcing fiber-based backbone networks to evolve.

Today, we’re seeing an unprecedented fast-growing need for ultra-high bandwidth, driven by a variety of 5G-related factors. Adoption of new mobile devices and cloud applications, for example. Low latency required for autonomous driving and other mission-critical services will create another vast increase in data traffic, calling for the fastest possible data processing and response times. Comprehensive use of the Internet of Things (IoT), ‘All over IP’ converged in-building networks, and Machine-to-Machine communications are further driving this need. Over the next 10+ years, densification, enhancement and continuous development of mobile communication network infrastructure to introduce new 5G features will take place in three major waves:

Enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) supports increasing end-user data rates and system capacity. It offers greater data bandwidth and moderate latency improvements on both 5G NR ‘new radio’ and existing 4G LTE radio infrastructure. Thanks to eMBB, broadband access in densely populated areas, and indoor and outdoor coverage in city centers and large MDUs, can be boosted. New mobile communication use cases can be developed in multiple key industries for private, but even more so for enterprise customers.

Massive internet of things (mIoT) refers to vast numbers of low-cost, low-energy consumption devices on a network, keeping up with high coverage needs in terms of many connections per square meter. In this case, latency and throughput requirements are presently less critical. Nevertheless, the combination of IoT and 5G will enable the next revolutionary step in modern factory and process management for large enterprises. In the same way, this will provide the foundation for a new era of public information management and the provision of smart, green, and ultra-efficient, modern public services in the growing urban environments of our ‘Smart Cities’.

Mission-critical/low latency services (mcLLs) are applications in which network failure may have potentially disastrous consequences. These applications require elevated security standards, ubiquitous coverage, and ultra-reliable, low latency communications. Examples include the aforementioned autonomous driving, as well as remote medical surgery or critical operation and maintenance services in national power grids.

Providing a fiber backbone

5G will enable and support all of these developments and more – but it’s not simply a matter of upgrading existing mobile network infrastructure. The changes between, for example, 2G and 3G or 3G and 4G and LTE were evolutionary, and the corresponding technology for the data transmission backbone remained more or less the same. With 5G, however, this is different, driven by a more drastic change in the network architecture necessary for 5G, significantly increasing technical complexity. Developments are complemented by the introduction of new frequencies, additional radio equipment and antennas, and subsequent network densification by centralizing active network elements plus parallel operation of 2G, 3G, 4G/LTE, and new 5G equipment at different frequencies, with different feature content and customer applications.

For instance, connecting 5G base stations using existing microwave radio links won’t suffice to support all 5G related services. New 5G cell sites (macro or small) will produce vast additional data traffic requiring higher bandwidth and lower network latency – existing backbone technology can’t handle such volumes and will probably not be fast enough. Such new 5G ‘cell sites’ have to be integrated into a new fiber optic backbone network. That means 5G base stations require direct connections to high-performance fiber optical networks (Fiber to the Antenna, FTTA). The 5G-specification demands latency lower than 10 milliseconds for mission-critical services. This means that the shortest possible transmission paths to nearest (edge) data centers and a fine-mesh fiber optical network with high availability are required.

Network operators will upgrade their existing mobile networks with 5G technology in several steps. In doing this, they will be forced to draw on the capacities of other existing fiber optic networks – i.e. other operators in the fixed network, FTTH, or CATV sectors. Furthermore, new fiber optic network providers – so-called ‘neutral hosts’ – are entering the market segment, offering additional fiber capacity and bandwidth. Integration, and cooperation between these players, from planning to implementation, is particularly complex but absolutely necessary in order to make 5G rollouts feasible– especially in large municipalities and urban regions, where the businesses require 5G service and mobile carriers can earn good money with it.

Even though it may seem ‘all-new’, the introduction of 5G services in existing local and national mobile networks will also require the upgrading and expanding of existing cell sites, which are mainly Macro Cells, plus many central network elements. To improve mobile coverage, capacity, and user experience operators are introducing additional Small Cells that place radios closer to users. In urban areas, 5G networks require seven to ten times as many Small Cells as Macro Cells. The active radio equipment and antennas used by these are typically more compact and can be integrated into lampposts, bus stations, or digital billboards, for example. As so many locations need to be covered, such Small Cell infrastructure needs to be attractively priced and the equipment easy and fast to install. These aspects require specific expertise and individual installation solutions.

Traditional broadcasters, point to multipoint service providers or classic public telecom providers have but up decades of experience. Nowadays, however, new types of service providers, so-called ‘tower companies’, are entering the market. Originally, this was triggered by the mobile carriers who were selling their sites (antennas at rooftops or towers) to these companies and leasing them back in order to generate cash for new investments – i.e. in 5G technology. Such tower companies now operate existing and new 5G cell sites for mobile network operators, albeit with less experience in operating this kind of infrastructure and future site development.

For this approach to work, tower operators, as a new customer segment, need cost-optimized, customized but also highly standardized infrastructure technology at the same time – for the construction of new Macro Cell sites and for integrated Small Cell installations.

Networks for Smart Cities

According to research by Deloitte, carriers will be unable to support projected increases in mobile data traffic without additional fiber deployments that reach deeper into metropolitan centers. Smart City fiber optic networks and 5G require new skills and a new approach to local 5G expansion concepts. This includes state-of-the-art fiber optic and power cabling, pipes, housings, and connection technology even in unusual locations. The required optimized, modular small cell components should be developed in cooperation between experienced manufacturers of street furniture and solutions around copper and fiber connectivity, radio propagation, fiber capacity as well as power and fiber demarcation management. Very location-specific challenges are also driven by administrative regulations and city-specific rules and standards play an immense role here.

Experts for the rollout

5G brings great opportunities for service providers to monetize and create new business value. However, to make the most of 5G you need to take a holistic approach.

Expertise in all of the integrated links in the network chain, including fiber optic cabling, is becoming increasingly important. Because 5G networks are complex and may open up surprising business opportunities and models, operators should seek expert support for their 5G projects at an early stage to avoid over-specifying and overspending or lacking long-term flexibility. Competent partners are essential to infrastructure expansion, installation, and system integration allowing network operators and providers to outsource tasks and concentrate on their core competencies.