Like many of my peers in the communications industry, I read a great deal of trade press articles to capture where the buzz is on any given day. On many occasions lately, the focus has been on 5G and how it promises to help us realize higher broadband speeds across the nation, including for millions of Americans who live in the most rural and remote parts of our country.
Take, for example, claims by supporters of the proposed T-Mobile-Sprint merger that improvements to the combined entity’s LTE network would bring additional residential broadband options to rural communities, “blanketing high-capacity coverage over large swaths of previously difficult to serve areas” and delivering 100+ Mbps speeds to over half the country’s households by 2024. This is certainly a lofty and commendable goal. In practice, however, this would require huge amounts of fiber backhaul that neither company currently possesses, as small cells must be placed very close to the customer (often within 300 to 500 feet) to reach the higher speeds contemplated by 5G — making the technology particularly impractical (and very expensive) for most rural applications anytime soon.
To be clear, next-generation wireless technologies offer promise for improving broadband connectivity. Wireless connectivity will be an important tool for reaching consumers and businesses in some rural areas, and certainly for delivering higher mobile speeds in urban areas. But the fact is that streaming video and other data demands enabled by 5G will test and strain spectrum resources and networks. Promised speeds therefore won’t be realized without significant underlying fiber capacity — and in rural areas, the practical reality is that it’s going to take fiber nearly to every home and business to make 5G work as it does in urban areas. For these reasons, 5G-enabled mobile services must be seen as a complement to robust wired broadband technologies rather than a replacement for them, because, whether fixed or mobile, they must be supported by a robust fiber-optic backbone to be truly successful in hard-to-serve parts of our country and keep pace with consumer demand.
I have been gratified to see more of my communications industry colleagues join NTCA in voicing support for building strong wireless and wired networks, but it is a message that can still get lost in the euphoria and exuberance surrounding 5G. It is essential therefore that we take a step back and take a deep breath when it comes to communications policy. 5G is poised to offer many great things, but to think that it will replace fiber in delivering high speeds to consumers ignores both the realities of the user experience and the underpinnings of communications networking, especially in rural America.
Fortunately, NTCA members haven’t taken their eyes off the prize. While they use every possible technology to reach consumers in need of service in the near term, they have stayed focused on the ultimate goal of building networks for the long-haul—networks that will respond directly to increasing consumer demand for high speed broadband and also enable evolving complementary 5G services. Indeed, a recent survey of NTCA members found that they continue to take substantial steps to replace aging copper networks with fiber connectivity where possible, preparing to meet current and future demands of rural America’s broadband customers.
To put it quite simply, a wireless network will only be as good as the wired infrastructure beneath it. More users and devices on a wireless network eventually necessitate more wired infrastructure upgrades to accommodate increased traffic and consumer demands, and many consumers’ bandwidth consumption is growing at a pace where only fiber will ultimately be able to satisfy demands. Moreover, in sparsely populated rural America, the distances between homes and businesses make it such that fiber is going to have to be nearly ubiquitous in order to deliver 5G at the same kinds of speeds that are promised in urban areas. I hope policymakers will continue to keep these lessons of physics and economics in mind as they craft policies to bridge the digital divide.
Shirley Bloomfield is chief executive officer of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association, the premier association representing nearly 850 independent, community-based telecommunications companies that are leading innovation in rural and small-town America.
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