5G’s side streets will be empty without fiber’s interstate

January 19, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC
From left, Allen Scott and Seth Dawson, both with Blue Lightning, work on a hole to join fiber optic cable, for high speed internet, on December 19, 2019 in Wiggins, Colorado.
WIGGINS, COLORADO - DECEMBER 19: From left, Allen Scott and Seth Dawson, both with Blue Lightning, work on a hole to join fiber optic cable, for high speed internet, on December 19, 2019 in Wiggins, Colorado. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
RJ Sangosti—MediaNews Group/The Denver Post/Getty Images

When it comes to new technology, 5G has been touted as the latest and greatest. It is true that its possibilities are inspiring, from autonomous vehicles to next-generation machine-learning applications, artificial intelligence to Internet of Things (IoT). However, it’s rarely mentioned that 5G’s amazing applications­—and ultimate success—are critically dependent on fiber optic networks.

5G enables the transmission of data between smartphones and cell towers (or large cells) at extremely high speeds—up to 100 times faster than 4G does. But the high frequencies employed by 5G have difficulty penetrating structures and can’t maintain their strength over distance. For example, concrete, brick, metal, wood and even people can impair the 5G signal. For this reason, 5G will need to rely on small cells in addition to large cells in order to fully distribute its signal to users—especially in crowded urban areas.

This is where fiber comes in. Data transmission between these small cells must often travel long distances, and fiber networks can carry that data at maximum speeds. Think of 5G as a side street, good for going short distances, and fiber as the interstate. In fact, the autobahn might be a better comparison.

Fiber is easier to scale than other networks; once a fiber pair is in place, the network can grow to exponentially higher speeds with simple equipment additions. It also is more secure, since fiber’s signal can only be intercepted if someone installs a physical device that taps into the cable.

For all these reasons, fiber must be deployed both broadly and deeply in the world’s emerging 5G networks, so this powerful new wireless technology can reach its full potential.

The partnership of fiber and 5G will have a great impact on emerging technologies. Take autonomous vehicles, for example. 5G will be essential for transmitting critical, real-time data to and from autonomous vehicles in motion, but it will not have the capacity to transfer the vast amounts of data these vehicles collect that needs to be analyzed and processed at major computing facilities. To solve this problem, CenturyLink and other technology companies are working closely with the automotive industry to establish super-high-speed, fiber-based, data-transmission stations that can distribute terabytes of information around the world. That data will thenbe analyzed to provide better software and database updates to self-driving cars via 5G.

Some of these fiber-5G applications are already in place, such as with intelligent automation in manufacturing. New generations of robots are fully connected for sharing data; lag time between machine communications has been virtually eliminated; and the use of smart, connected sensors has dramatically increased. Such improvements enable factory machines to work with unprecedented precision and make instantaneous decisions. But this wouldn’t be technically and economically feasible without fiber’s ability to move massive amounts of data to and from the applications controlling the robots on the factory floor.

To enhance the power of 5G combined with fiber, forward-looking companies are turning to edge computing. Fiber-based edge computing involves these companies—including retailers, financial service providers, health care service providers, and even 5G carriers—placing servers physically closer to the cell towers that deliver data to end users via 5G. Since the fiber carrying information between servers and cell towers is shorter, the transmission is faster. Companies that utilize 5G can find tremendous cost savings in deploying edge computing.

During the last century, telephone companies pioneered early networks by standing up poles and stringing phone wires across the nation. Today, the new pioneers are tech companies like CenturyLink who are standing up networks and stretching fiber across the globe—and in the process, making exciting technologies like 5G possible.

Jeff Storey is CEO of CenturyLink.

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