A recent BBC article that examines 5G vs fiber and entertains the possible obsolescence of fiber broadband over the next ten years got us thinking. Is it true, and if so, what bigger and better option is waiting in the wings to replace it?
It’s hard to think back to dark days of even just a decade ago when many of us relied on slow DSL connections for home Internet. Most of us didn’t own very many connected devices, and certainly not the plethora of Smart Home appliances and speakers that all connect to our Wi-Fi networks today. I’d step out on a limb to say that the idea of streaming high-definition (1080p) content to our TVs back then was a huge novelty, let alone the 4K content that we can get today. We still come across issues and occasional outages, naturally, but for the most part we’re kind of living in a golden age of always-on connectivity and on-demand content, and fiber plays an enormous role in that.
The Demise of DSL
When DSL broadband started to become popular, it never seemed to me that it was destined to stick around for long. I remember thinking at the time that those old copper cables and switch gear were still a real bottleneck, and it’s no surprise since they really weren’t designed with the Internet or digital data in mind. That’s why fiber optic cables seemed like such a huge leap.
The Rise of Fiber
Designed specifically to carry data in streams of 0s and 1s at the speed of light, these glass or plastic fibers seemed like a miracle of science when I first heard about them. In fact, when I lived in Portland, Oregon, I vividly remember waiting impatiently for Google to roll its much-lauded Google Fiber throughout the city, promising up to 100 times faster Internet speeds. Portland was one of the cities on Google’s shortlist, announced in February 2014, but things didn’t go as planned. By October 2016 the writing seemed on the wall. Google was backing down, due primarily to what I guessed was a combination of cost, opposition from utility companies, and lower-than-projected subscriber numbers in other Google Fiber cities.
As reported by Engadget at the time:
“Installing fiber-optic cable is also costlier than Google Fiber initially expected. It cost the company $1 billion to lay the infrastructure for Kansas City, Google’s first Fiber City, and it will likely cost that much or more in each new city. Google has tried to use existing utility poles—instead of laying fiber-optic cable underground—to reduce costs, but some utility companies and service providers are fighting these attempts by limiting access to utility poles and delaying construction.”
This certainly isn’t a criticism of Google. The company obviously went through a steep learning curve having to work with cities and negotiate with utilities to get fiber deployed. That doesn’t detract from fiber’s inherently impressive capabilities as a whole, but these missteps seem to have put a damper on the excitement and expectations of the technology on a broad scale.
For massive international projects like undersea cables, fiber still makes complete sense. It’s robust, it carries incredible amounts of data, and it is a relatively cost-effective option compared with traditional, heavy copper cables. From a speed and reliability perspective, then, fiber is still very impressive. But that doesn’t mean that its crown isn’t eventually going to be usurped, just as it was for VHS tapes, CDs and fax machines.
5G vs Fiber
What’s around the corner? Well, it may very well be 5G cellular technology. Telcos like Verizon in the US and Three in the UK have both announced and started rolling out 5G-based home broadband with speeds of around 300 Mbps. Granted, there have been some hiccups with the equipment and speeds not being quite as fast as promised, but the massive advantage is that 5G is wireless, and therefore won’t require any major hardware upgrades. No trenches to be dug up. No experts needed for installation. Currently, the costs for 5G home broadband are high and there’s still very limited availability in a select number of cities, but I expect this to change within two or three years. By then we should see widespread deployment, better speeds, and even lower costs for consumers due to increased competition in the space.
As the “5G vs Fiber” debate continues, what do you think? Will 5G make fiber obsolete in the next 10 years? It’s certainly a possibility. The one thing I’m personally looking forward to is that, maybe by then, the LG 88-inch 8K OLED TV I’ve had my eye on will only cost around $1,000, instead of the $33,000 it costs today.