Why 5G mobile networks are really ‘fibre networks in disguise’

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Service providers are investing in 5G mobile networks as they will deliver speeds approaching 10 gigabits per second. That is 600 times faster than standard 4G speeds, and more than 10 times faster than some residential fibre offerings.

This is according to ProLabs, an optical networking infrastructure firm, which notes that fibre optics have replaced copper for almost all links in the 5G networks used in delivering the required speed from the mobile antenna to consumers’ phones. Thus, “5G networks are really fibre optic networks with a short wireless connection at the end.”

ProLabs Craig Copeland, Networking and Storage Director at Networks Unlimited Africa, which is the value-added distributor for ProLabs in sub-Saharan Africa explains, “The fifth generation of mobile networks, 5G, is not just a technology implementation but changes the entire network architecture paradigm. Significant changes in infrastructure are required to effect the functionality of the fifth-generation technology standard for cellular networks.”

Historically and into the present, the coverage of 3G and 4G mobile networks has been provided through tall mobile towers that have become a familiar part of the landscape.

“5G, however, is different,” notes Paul Barnes, Customer Consultant, EMEA and India at ProLabs. “To achieve the highest 5G speeds, the network requires significantly more radio antennas in order to achieve the expected features and performance. Millions of new mobile antenna locations are therefore required, and almost all of them will be connected by fibre. Additionally, transmission distances will vary from a few metres up to a few dozen kilometres, and optics will play an increasingly important role within 5G infrastructure.”

According to ProLabs, as mobile technology evolves, mobile radio components are being separated for functional and economic efficiency. This has created the need for novel optical links between the mobile antenna and aggregation points within the network. As a result, three architectures have emerged, as follows:

·        Front-haul: transport from the antenna to the distributed unit;
·        Mid-haul: transport from the distributed unit to the central unit; and
·        Back-haul: transport from the central unit to the 5G core or evolved packet core.

Each of these architectures has unique optical performance requirements, says ProLabs.

“5G is the newest iteration of mobile data standards, with its faster speeds, better reliability and higher device capacity, especially in urban settings and areas with high device concentrations, set to create unprecedented new opportunities,” notes Barnes.

“These could include a wide selection of internet of things (IoT) applications; enabling specialised tasks like remote precision medicine, which involves matching the right medication to the right individuals; connected cars, with their own connections to the internet, which allows the car to share internet access and data with other devices both inside and outside the car; and virtual and augmented reality,” he added.

“There is no doubt that the eventual successful implementation of 5G networks locally will help to change the way that South Africans live and work, and ProLabs is committed to playing our part. ProLabs has already delivered significant volumes of optics to some of the largest service providers in the world,” concludes Alkesh Patel, SVP EMEA & India from ProLabs.