Even traditional wireless service providers are heavily investing in fiber today, and not because they have plans to develop fixed broadband networks. Rather, these operators recognize the vital role fiber plays in fixed wireless and the burgeoning world of 5G.
Sprint Chief Technology Officer John Saw recently told Broadband World News that if regulators approve Sprint's merger with T-Mobile, the new mobile provider expects to "disrupt rural broadband services" by using fixed wireless. Sprint has expanded its fiber deployment both to support existing mobile services and with an eye on 5G, he said.
"With the growth of 5G, I think there's a need for more capacity needs for backhaul, and that's why more and more we are focused on using fiber for backhaul as opposed to microwave," said Saw.
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The global fixed wireless broadband market, which has been steadily increasing over the last several years, will increase by 30% this year and generate $18 billion in service revenue, according to ABI Research. LTE is most broadly used worldwide to deliver fixed wireless broadband -- primarily for residential service in areas with poor fixed broadband infrastructure, the researcher said.
In preparation, mobile providers have been heavily investing in fiber. Last year, for example, AT&T acquired mobile backhaul provider FiberTower. Verizon bought XO Communications, including of course its 26,000 route miles of inner-city fiber networks in 85 cities across North America, as well as some WOW! resources for $225 million.
In 2017, some of the biggest fiber deals included CenturyLink's $34 billion acquisition of Level 3 and ILEC Consolidated's purchase of FairPoint for $1.5 billion.
For its part, Deutsche Telekom added 40,000 km (about 25,000 miles) of fiber in 2017, up from 30,000 (19,000 miles) in the two previous years. DT's 2018 plans include accelerating broadband upgrades to 60,000 km (37,000 miles), according to the telco. DT is one of a growing number of telco partners in Facebook's Terragraph project to use, in part, fixed wireless to bring broadband around the world -- especially in rural, underserved and under-developed regions. The provider plans to begin 5G trials in Germany this year, Light Reading reported.
Both Verizon and BT have publicly stated their plans to move toward one converged network that supports all customers. Earlier this year, BT's Consumer Division head Marc Allera shared BT's plans to create one network to serve all the UK, wrote IDC's John Delaney, associate vice president of European mobility. As Delaney wrote:
Ever since BT announced that it was to acquire EE, it has been obvious where the foundations of its strategy for competitive differentiation should lie. When the EE acquisition completed in early 2016, BT became the only UK operator that owned both a fixed-line and a mobile network for nationwide consumer access. Thus, BT gained the ability to differentiate itself by creating services combining fixed and mobile access, and inter-working them in ways that would be difficult to achieve without the control over both networks that ownership confers.
As the technologies also converge, the concept of creating one network for wireless and wired services using a combination of fiber and fixed wireless (among many components, of course) becomes more clearly viable if not apparent.
Densifying the network
With fiber firmly in-hand, service providers can more easily densify their networks, a process essential to 5G success. Leasing lit lines from fiber providers would be cost prohibitive otherwise, despite what Sprint CTO Saw and others describe as a lowering of fiber costs over the past year or so.
"I think with the increase in demand from all the operators who are building their own 5G networks and just the general increase in traffic across the Internet, that is also driving more competition between those who are building new fiber and those who want to provide dark fiber and then the incumbents who usually provide lit fiber," he told BBWN. "The growth, the long-term stability of the business now, is giving them more confidence to drop the price. Within the span of the last year, we have seen some significant drop in the price of lit fiber."
Significant indeed -- rates have dropped almost 40%, he said. With such sizable cuts, the fiber frenzy is more easily fueled, empowering more providers -- wired and mobile -- to buy into the fiber connection necessary to fixed wireless' success.
— Alison Diana, Editor, Broadband World News. Follow BBWN on Twitter or follow me @alisoncdiana.