Fibre and mobile's broadband marriage

Fibre-to-the-Home (FttH) and wireless broadband will work together in shaping the future of the telecoms industry and the seamless integration between FttH and 5G should occur by the end of this decade.

The fixed broadband network is the infrastructure needed to meet the needs, both economic and societal, of developed markets. While some people in some developed markets have abandoned their fixed telephone connection in favour of all-mobile solutions, the majority (90 per cent  plus) still have both a fixed and a mobile connection.

People have discovered for themselves that they need both, and they have intuitively worked out what they use, where and when. The same applies to the various communications applications. Again intuitively, people are using SMS, chat, social media, email, telephone messages and voice-based telephony.

There is no reason to suppose that this will change. Using transport as an example, one method does not replace the other. We walk, use a bike, car, bus, train, boat or plane, without too much discussion and confusion.

And so wireless broadband and FttH will develop, in a complementary and harmonious way. There are several reasons for this:

  • Advanced economies and societies will see an increase in the demand for quality and sophistication of applications (digital nations, digital economies, smart buildings, smart cities) and this will have its impact on the quality of the digital infrastructure that is needed to support these developments.
  • Wireless is a shared infrastructure – in the absence of FttH-like applications this technology already demands a significant increase in the number of mobile towers. More of these base stations are needed as the demand for mobile capacity (broadband) increases, and this creates its own environmental and societal problems.
  • Most people will have experienced mobile quality problems – blackspots, dropouts, loss of quality. How tolerant will people be of these problems in relation to TV, healthcare, HD education and other essential services?
  • The level of reliability, security, privacy and quality required will be impossible to achieve without very significant investment in mobile infrastructure. However such investments will make the delivery of FttH-like mobile services economically not viable.
  • Antenna-based systems will always be more expensive to maintain than fixed FttH networks. In the long term FttH is a more cost-effective solution in nearly all broadband deployments.
  • Wireless broadband will be an integral and essential part of any advanced digital infrastructure. There will be some overlap but the major usages are complementary. Seamless integration between FttH and 5G will occur later on in this decade.

In low-density areas in developed economies there is room for fixed wireless infrastructure (instead of FttH), fixed-LTE and WiMAX are some of the technologies used here. Low density means less sharing, which means better quality. The relatively small population size of the areas where such infrastructure will be deployed, and the fact that this will be mainly government-funded rural/regional infrastructure, will allow for the over-engineering necessary for the delivery of comparable user experiences to people in these areas. Nevertheless, because of its superior quality, advances in the FttH technology will see an ongoing increase of its reach into regional areas.

Mobile broadband will be the only way to advance telecoms developments in developing economies with little or no fixed infrastructure in place; and not just for telecoms – even more importantly, for economic and social developments (e-commerce, m-payments, e-health, education and so on). The UN has already earmarked broadband as an essential element in the Millennium Development Goals.

However, even here, over time (20-25 years, perhaps less) I foresees that this will lead to higher FttH penetration in these countries as well, for exactly the same reasons that are mentioned above.

But once again these developments go hand in hand with the development of mobile broadband, the convenience of mobile communication and the fact that it is personal, will see an ongoing increase of its use.

Paul Budde is the managing director of BuddeComm, an independent telecommunications research and consultancy company, which includes 45 national and international researchers in 15 countries. 

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