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Is 5G Fixed Wireless vs. FTTH a Cage Fight or a Toolkit?

Daniel Grossman
4/3/2018
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Battles between telecom technologies are an endless source of entertainment for industry observers, and, somehow, the physical and data link layers seem to attract more than their fair share. For longer than I can remember, standards committees, conferences, the media, analyst coverage and the marketplace have been the scenes of epic "A" versus "B" battles. Some ultimately are decisively decided at a standards meeting or by the marketplace (how many ATM ports shipped last year?). Others are not so binary, and both "A" and "B" find their respective niche. mm-wave 5G fixed wireless access (5G-FWA) and fiber to the home (FTTH) fall into the latter category. Some pundits predict that lower infrastructure costs associated with 5G-FWA will halt new FTTH builds, other are convinced that 5G-FWA’s inadequacies will doom it to the dustbin of history. They are misinformed.

Realistically, there will be no winner or loser here. Instead, 5G-FWA is "just another tool in the toolkit," alongside FTTH and other access systems. A new Heavy Reading report, "FTTH & 5G Fixed Wireless: Different Horses for Different Courses," looks at the trade-offs that operators must make between the two technologies, the use cases in which one or the other best meets provider needs and operator strategies. Let’s take two examples.

The first example is a new planned community. All utilities are underground, and duct for fiber is placed at the same time as the electric, gas and water lines. Along with the rest of the wiring, electricians install power for an FTTH optical network terminal (ONT) in a dedicated place and run structured wiring from there. When the provider gets involved, broadband construction crews pull pre-assembled feeder cables through the duct network from a centrally located fiber hub and set fiber terminals in pre-positioned hand holes. Installation crews can then race through the project, pulling drop fibers and installing ONTs. There’s little opportunity for bad surprises, and productivity can be measured in minutes, rather than hours, per house. That leaves no case for building small cell sites on every street corner -- even if the developer will allow them. If the developer has a say in the matter, FTTH adds about 3% to the sale or rental value of each unit, an attractive proposition.

The second example is an older urban neighborhood (imagine the outer boroughs of New York City). Multiple dwelling unites (MDUs) and storefronts occupy every square foot of most city blocks, except for the surrounding sidewalks. Each fiber installation requires a permit cut into those sidewalks and burdens installers with all of the hassles that come with working in congested areas. Difficult installation means expensive installation. Worse, the provider must deal with dozens of landlords and owner associations, some friendly, some not. Some of them are persnickety about the appearance of their common areas; some of them cut an exclusive deal with another provider; some won’t let anything happen unless their palms get greased; some don’t answer the phone or the doorbell. Worse still, sometimes the existing phone lines run from basement to basement (really!), and not all the landlords are cooperative about allowing new fiber to be installed those unorthodox pathways. For FTTH providers, these are the ingredients of splitting headaches. On the other hand, rooftops, poles and streetlights provide relatively convenient space for small cell sites. Better yet, each site can serve many hundreds of households and mobile subscribers, despite the short range of mm-wave radios. Even better still, 5G-FWA customers might be able to self-install, sparing the provider the cost of a truck roll.

FTTH obviously makes more sense in the first example, while 5G-FWA clearly has the advantage in the second. Of course, these are clear cases. For those in between, providers that deploy both technologies will develop and utilize life-cycle cost models tailored to their cost structures. Household density is the key variable in those analyses. Generally, 5G-FWA use cases will tend to be urban scenarios, where capex and opex can be spread over a large customer base and the propagation environment is favorable for advanced mm-wave radios. FTTH use cases have a sweet spot in the suburbs, where fiber construction is easier and profitability can be achieved at lower household densities.

Verizon's public analysis shows that about one third of US households are candidates for 5G-FWA. Interestingly, those are largely outside their traditional territories. AT&T has similar out-of-region ambitions. In other words, they are extending their mobile rivalry to residential services.

That battle will be much more interesting to watch than the technology debate.

— Dan Grossman, Contributing Analyst, Heavy Reading

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