With countries across the globe still in lockdowns, one thing has become abundantly clear- telecom network infrastructure is critical to ensuring societies can function. People are no longer placing value on cars, fancy clothes, exotic trips, or other luxuries, but are prioritising internet connectivity to the home and throughout the house. Without Wi-Fi, working from home, streaming movies, talking to family members, and many other activities are impossible. This has put two technologies under the spotlight: fiber access and Wi-Fi.
Our industry has a great responsibility to bring technologies that will help our society be smarter, safer, and function seamlessly, whatever the situation. Fixed ultra-broadband is no longer a privilege but a basic need that should be addressed through governments and policymakers. In the “new normal” post-COVID times, broadband will make our lives easier; in times of crisis, it will make life-as-usual possible.
The impact of COVID-19 on networks
With more people working and staying at home, the way society uses the networks has changed. Several operators have reported a significant increase in fixed traffic; for example, Telecom Italy has experienced a 70% increase. The changing user behavior demands high capacity not only in the downstream part of the access network, but also in upstream, and in aggregation networks, i.e., points deeper in the network where the data traffic from thousands of users is aggregated. At Nokia, our analysis shows that the new corona usage patterns will push network upgrades four years sooner than previously expected.
Operators also face more challenges than just upgrading the existing broadband. Many homes worldwide either don’t have broadband connectivity or are severely underserved, which will drive the ultra-broadband initiatives. This will be partly due to changes in businesses. Homeworking was already on the rise, but with COVID-19, many organisations were able to function entirely remotely. Those who didn’t, and relied on the office-based model, have suffered the most and will likely rethink their homeworking policy in the future.
The emergency services adopting more IoT devices during the pandemic will all accelerate the need for more connectivity. The emergency services used IoT devices, like smartphones, robots, and drones, for surveillance, announcements and broadcasting, the transport of medical supplies, automation and robotics for delivery of goods, and much more, many of which required full-coverage network access to work at optimum levels.
What does all that mean for the networks?
The networks of the future will center around three technologies: Wi-Fi 6, 5G, and fiber.
Wi-Fi continues to be the primary technology used indoors, and it relies heavily on fiber technologies. Regardless if it’s at home or the office, consumers on a wireless phone frequently will switch from a mobile network to a Wi-Fi network. In fact, studies estimate that more than 50% of cellular traffic is currently offloaded to Wi-Fi. This number is only set to increase with the introduction of 5G.
Wi-Fi 6 will allow consumers to have the same quality of experience on Wi-Fi as in 5G (lower latency, high speeds). Bell Labs’ innovative queue management algorithm (PI2) and low-latency low-loss scalable (L4S) implementation provide a more consistent latency. It also reduces extreme latencies even in highly congested networks so that the users can benefit from the best user experience in every corner of their home.
5G will allow for new applications that were not possible in 4G networks. To deliver these, 5G will need to densify through a large number of small cells. To transport the mobile traffic transport from these cells deeper in the network will require fiber. Leveraging the existing fiber access network is the most cost-efficient and fastest way because no new network must be built. Bell Labs Consulting has recently conducted a study showing the PON based mobile transport is 50% more cost-efficient than other traditional transport options.
Making smart choices for fiber
Technology choice is one of the main factors to consider when building fiber networks. GPON is the most widely spread access technology today. The shift to next-generation XGS-PON will be massive in 3-4 years from now. However, it may become needed sooner due to an increase in access and aggregation capacity demand for homeworking. Those who are now starting with PON deployments should think of beginning with XGS-PON immediately to avoid a new investment cycle any time soon or compete better. The cost-difference between new GPON and new XGS-PON networks is very small because the most significant cost (70%) is in the buildout of the outside fiber plant – which is needed in both cases. A good example is National Broadband Ireland, which will connect > 500.000 premises in rural Ireland using XGS-PON.
For those who already have GPON in place, the migration to XGS-PON is simplified with Multi-PON. The solution enables both GPON and XGS-PON on a single port of the access node. Operators can start with GPON and activate XGS-PON remotely, when and where needed.
XGS-PON with 10Gb/s symmetrical speeds will enable us to converge all residential, business, and mobile transport services over one network, get more revenues and monetise network faster. Our study shows that introducing XGS-PON in the overlay to GPON can accelerate return on fiber investment by 15%.
While the world is accelerating with 10Gb/s XGS-PON, we are already thinking about the next steps and new technologies, which will allow us to boost the capacity of fiber networks and further enhance smart cities. The steps will likely be 25G PON in the short term and 50G PON in 8-10 years from now. 25G PON is best positioned as the immediate next step due to its cost efficiency and clear opportunity – two factors that every successful access technology must fulfill. 25G will benefit from a large volume of data center optical network technologies and a well-established eco-system to be cost-efficient. The opportunity to benefit from 25G is also clear: mobile radio units have standard 25G Ethernet interfaces, which makes 25G PON perfect for 5G transport. Other use cases include ≥ 10Gb/s business and residential services.
Making fiber smart
The fiber networks are not only getting faster but also smarter. With the ongoing increase in broadband services and devices, there is a need to simplify the operations, reduce human error, and lower power consumption.
Networks are getting redefined through the evolution of virtualisation and Software Defined Access Networks (SDAN) and will become more efficient. The industry goal is to achieve a fully automated, data-driven network that is easily reconfigured on the fly, augmenting human possibility in planning cycles, adapting to change, and responding to threats. We are not there yet, but already today, we benefit from advances in virtualisation and cloud. For example, network slicing enables operators to create low latency tunnels for mobile transport or Wi-Fi traffic or deliver more efficient wholesale models. Another example is Intent-based networking, which decouples what is needed (the intent) from how to achieve it. Once the intent is defined, the network can come to the stage that fulfills the intent without human intervention.
Making the world a better place, one fiber at a time
The world offers many uncertainties that cannot be prepared for, but with the introduction of more fiber, communities will be in the best position possible.
The pandemic has shown us that technology has the power to protect people, connect people, and create a better tomorrow. As people become more reliant on digital technology, developing the network will become crucial to meet the demand.
Interested in hearing industry leaders discuss subjects like this? Attend the co-located 5G Expo, IoT Tech Expo, Blockchain Expo, AI & Big Data Expo, and Cyber Security & Cloud Expo World Series with upcoming events in Silicon Valley, London, and Amsterdam.