Flexing Fiber Investments

By: David Stokes

Every telecoms network in the world is a web of different coexisting communications technologies—from copper wire to fiber optic, cellular to microwave, and millimeter wave to satellite. These networks deliver a host of service types to consumers and businesses as well as underpin critical national infrastructure, emergency services and the developing Internet of Things.

This article shines a light on the unheralded transport network—and what the future demands of it. Despite how the network is accessed, it falls to the transport network to manage all the traffic and ensure it is carried effectively and efficiently to the right destination. It is no longer viable to maintain separate networks for each service type. What is required is a modern converged packet transport network able to gather all data from all access points and bring coherence to the multiplicity of originating traffic demands. It needs to integrate the legacy with the innovative and provide the best transport technology for each service. 

Yet in many ways, the transport networks remain the unfashionable part of the telecommunications ecosystem, while the access points get all the attention. It seems operators and enterprises alike are all eagerly looking to invest even more in all-fiber access connections, with many of these plans supported by state-backed funding initiatives aimed at increasing the penetration of FTTP (Fiber-to-the-Premises). 

This deployment drive is also helped by new techniques and specialized tools that have reduced the time it takes to install optical fiber and also increased the amount of fiber that can be held within a single duct. As a result, across the world, network operators, fiber network wholesalers, businesses and local authorities are in a race to put fiber into the ground.

Not the only race in town

But fiber deployment is not the only race in town. The potential of 5G technology is even more tantalizing, driving a race of its own as operators look to revolutionize the way services are offered. Innovations such as network slicing and dedicated channels with guaranteed service levels are all a part of the 5G promise.

But modernizing the unfashionable transport layer is actually the key to unlocking much of this innovation, both from the increased availability of fiber connections and from 5G technology.

In the case of 5G, the difference between the potential of the network and the current capability is effectively hiding in plain sight. As things stand, the majority of 5G deployments are what is known as ‘non-stand-alone’ networks that rely on existing transport infrastructure to deliver their services. However, this existing infrastructure cannot properly support the network slicing features that underpin 5G’s innovation and service promise.

In physical transport terms, this is like buying a fleet of new high-speed trains but neglecting to upgrade the rail network itself and therefore forcing the trains to operate at two-thirds speed. But this mismatch between potential and capability affects more than just the new 5G networks.

Transport networks hold the key to the future

Much talked-about innovations in road, rail and air transportation systems will actually depend on these advances in the communications transport network. As the transportation and utility networks are updated to modern digital networks deploying a vast number of sensors and actuators, high-quality video will become the norm for surveillance and security, and for a host of operational purposes. An upgrade to the communications transport network will deliver the huge bandwidth required and allow the vehicles and trains to communicate with the management systems—and with each other—with the required security. This upgraded network will allow the vision of autonomous vehicles to become a reality. 

When it comes to smart cities, projects large and small—from simple smart lighting and traffic control systems to fully integrated city-wide networks linking tens of thousands of sensors and devices—will depend on a communications transport network agile enough to adapt and scale as solutions and systems are added over the course of the deployment.


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