As a network designer and advocate for the deployment of ubiquitous high-speed broadband networks, I am often asked, “Why would someone want to go to the trouble and cost to place fiber cable? Isn’t wireless technology going to eventually replace it?” Indeed, there are currently a number of available technologies and media to use when creating robust diverse broadband networks including satellite, coaxial cable, copper cable, cellular wireless, millimeter/point-to-point/microwave and even repurposing “white space” spectrum from the analog TV days. But I believe the best option is fiber optic based networks. My claim is based on the premise that when creating a network of “teleconnectivity” (pass it around – I think is a much better term for our industry than “communications” or “telephony”), there is no better vehicle for communication than light.
Let’s take a look at a few different attributes of light that I find interesting:
Light requires no medium. One of light’s attributes is that it acts like a wave. This is important because waves are a fundamental way that we communicate within our environment. When we transmit, receive, and convert wave energy, we can both self-identify and connect with each other. Consider the sounds we hear, the frequencies we feel, and the things we see – all the result of waves. However, in contrast to other energies that require a medium to support a wave, light doesn’t need that. With sound waves, the density of a material (solid, liquid, or gas/atmosphere) can impact its effective ability pass energy (information). In fact, and this dawned on me one evening while stargazing from my rocking chair, light can operate more effectively in a vacuum. Think of it as less “friction” or resistance. You can’t hear anything in the emptiness of space, but starlight can travel for millions of miles. There has been some effort in developing LiFi, where devices can translate the flicker of LED across open space, but this has been effective across only very short ranges. Other than operating in a true vacuum, today’s best solution for optical transmission is fiber cable.
Light can be “split.” When we look at the different frequencies of light we often focus on the visible spectrum. White light can be diffracted into different colors (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet), or wavelengths, representing the spectra of visible light. This reminds me of a splitter in a PON (passive optical network), where one fiber can be configured to effectively serve multiple users, often in ratios of 1:16 or 1:32.
Light is fast. Light is the fastest thing we know of in the universe. In a vacuum, light moves at 299,792,458 meters per second (186,282 miles per second). It’s also worth noting that in the equation for special relativity (E=MC2), the speed of light is the universal denominator.
We have many applications for light, and it seems to me that it is the best candidate for future applications we haven’t discovered or created yet. If light is the ideal means of transmission in a high-speed ubiquitous broadband network, this points us back to a fiber optic based network.
Let’s consider the economic impact of a purely wireless environment. The average wireless consumer uses around 2 GB per month, making the average household use anywhere between 6-10 GB. But the same “cord cutting” family streaming Netflix or Amazon may use up to 250 GB per month. Solely relying on wireless usage would become exponentially expensive. This approach has led to the dramatic shift from cellular usage to Wi-Fi (which I consider to be a wire-based service).
Let’s also look outside current residential and business services to market-wide smart city applications. This includes virtual or augmented reality applications, smart metering and smart switching for utilities, environmental sensors, closed circuit security cameras, integrated traffic systems (ITS), localized machine-to-machine applications, wearable connectivity, and connected autonomous vehicles. Self-driving cars alone are predicted to require 4TB of data per day. Then there is the wide array of smart city applications that we haven’t even thought up yet! With all this considered, you can see how the overall data usage and need for speed becomes staggering.
So, coming full circle back to original question – wired or wireless? Certainly, constructing a wired network has greater initial impact and costs than a wireless network. But this shouldn’t be contrasted as an “either/or” scenario. They should work in complement to each other.
Using innovative field data collection tools like photogrammetry and LiDAR to load information into the Point Cloud, as well as automated design processing in a GIS platform, we can expedite and improve the accuracy of the design process. This yields more accurate market assessments and realistic schedules, driving down labor demands and material waste. These efficiencies can create significant impacts on lowering the costs of deploying and operating fiber optic networks, encouraging confidence for new partnership models investing into open access, dark, lit, and municipal fiber networks.
Of course, we all want to leverage the benefits of the various iterations of “wireless” services. In certain regions where it just isn’t economically viable to construct a wired network, a long-range wireless application may be the ideal solution to achieve rural broadband access. But I believe the greater benefit of wireless is as a device solution. As we reference broadband networks supporting FTTH/FTTP/FTTB/FTTX as “first mile”, “middle mile” and “last mile” segments, I see many wireless applications as a “last foot” solution. In these environments, wireless access is great, but ultimately has to be supported by fiber.
To support the speed and density that a ubiquitous high-speed broadband network will demand, the infrastructure will be wire-less, but not wire-free!
About Lee Comer
Lee Comer is the Broadband Engineering Services Practice Area Leader at Foresite Group, LLC. He brings over 20 years of experience as a designer, supervisor, and project manager in the telecommunications industry. A native Alabamian, Lee earned his B.S. and M.S. in Industrial Design from Auburn University. With a passionate focus on improving the way people relate to each other, information and technology, and their environment, Lee translates his knowledge of design, construction, and installation of communication networks into a comprehensive infrastructure program to create connected communities.