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Craig Black explains why fibre could make or break 5G

5G networks will give both enterprises and consumers access to gigabit speeds with stronger, more reliable connectivity. But to make this happen, 5G requires access to a spectrum that enables high throughput service, as well as connections to dense, high-capacity fibre optic networks.

The importance of fibre to 5G cannot be overstated. One recent Deloitte Consulting report* stated that in the United States alone, up to $150 billion will have to be invested in fibre over several years to adequately support broadband buildouts, rural connectivity and wireless deployments. 

How fibre impacts 5G

Adoption of small cell networks is critical to achieving the network densification required for 5G coverage and capacity. Small cells strategically place radios closer to end users and, thus, improve the overall quality of experience (QoE) for mobile users on 5G networks.

For the majority of service providers, the preferred transport method is fibre. This is because it’s scalable, secure and cost-effective, as well as being a familiar technology that’s easily understood by network engineers, which cuts time for installation, deployment and maintenance.

But fibre is also important to 5G fronthaul, particularly for small cell deployment, as it achieves the speed, latency and bandwidth requirements for proper operation. Furthermore, it enables operators to centralise baseband resources and connect clusters of radio units in centralised radio access network (C-RAN) architectures. Doing so simplifies deployments by decreasing equipment footprint and improving network efficiency through the centralised management of resources.

By using fibre in the fronthaul and access networks, operators reduce the cost of backhaul, helping to generate higher revenues per site and improve QoE.

Service assurance for 5G fibre  

There are several factors that must be considered when testing and assuring fibre for 5G networks. To ensure proper operation, there are a number of tests that should be performed during the installation and commissioning phases of the network, including connector inspection and continuity tests, as well as characterisation of front and backhaul fibre links.

Operators also need to validate all components throughout the deployment of the 5G network. System performance requires more than simply seeing a green light on a baseband unit or remote radio. Indeed, signal levels could be just marginal or on the threshold, incapable of surviving environmental impacts.

It’s important to note that 5G networks have less tolerance for overall light loss, making attenuation more of an issue than ever before. Dust, oils and water blocking gel are common forms of fibre connector end-face contamination. Simply placing dust caps on fibre connectors won’t work in a 5G deployment, since small particles can still migrate onto the surface, and contamination can occur during build or staging.

Physical damage, such as fibre breaks, strain, macrobends or elongation, not only causes signal loss or communication failure, but can shorten the lifespan of the fibre cable. In fact, just one per cent strain exceeds acceptable thresholds for cable performance. This issue is of particular concern with 5G networks, due to the increase in deployment of fibre to the antenna (FTTA) sites. Therefore, active monitoring of the network is critical for service assurance, enabling damaged or stressed areas of fibre to be identified and repaired, reducing mean-time-to-repair (MTTR) and enhancing QoE.

Another key factor that must be considered in 5G fibre rollouts is the skillset needed to deploy the networks. Proficiency is required by fibre optic installers, contractors, project managers, technicians and engineers that need to understand, apply and correctly measure and record the performance of fibre infrastructures.

Competitive differentiators

5G will create new revenue opportunities from outside the traditional telecommunications sphere, but only if operators commit to the service guarantees and experiences that these new vertical market customers require. Enterprise customers will demand 5G service performance levels that are backed by service level agreements (SLAs).

Because 5G networks are distributed across hybrid virtualised and physical infrastructure, test and assurance can be complex. Mastering those networks requires that operators have the ability to access empirical performance analysis data about how their networks are functioning. The ability to correlate and visualise that data is essential in assuring quality of experience.

Operators have a tremendous opportunity to create competitive differentiation in the market by applying service performance monitoring and assurance metrics to fibre-based networks. There’s no question that business-critical 5G services will benefit from 5G technologies like edge cloud deployment.

However, in order to bring these profitable new business cases to life, it’s vital for operators to implement accurate and proactive application, service and performance monitoring in their networks, with a keen focus on fibre health and resiliency.

Craig Black is senior director and general manager of fibre optic test at VIAVI Solutions

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