While 5G's first phase is underway, it will take time to establish end-to-end 5G networks. Today's rollouts are non-standalone, consumer focused and often limited to dense population centers. As major 5G users push the envelope, and 5G service expands out of cities into suburban and rural areas, end-to-end 5G access is required in more remote locations. 5G access means ultra-high capacity, low-latency fronthaul networking. The problem is RF technology and fiber optic cabling often cannot deliver end-to-end 5G. As a result, optical wireless communications (OWC) are poised to fill critical gaps in the 5G ecosystem, while delivering a "better, faster, cheaper" option for 5G rollouts and expansions.
High throughput fronthaul required
In the consumer 5G domain, communications and entertainment applications are already anticipating an end-to-end 5G environment. New services are landing before the network has arrived, with everything from 8K video and augmented reality to gaming, VR and holography ready to consume 5G bandwidth immediately.
Industrial 5G use cases anticipate services that combine sensors, automated control systems, live video, autonomous vehicles, drones and other machinery, and masses of analytical and visualized data. Industries from shipping to banking, railroads to insurance, are all developing new technology to leverage the 5G environment and bring greater automation and real-time visibility to their customers and internal operations.
These types of applications need at least the 1Gbps, ultra-low-latency connectivity environment 5G enables. This kind of per-connection throughput means fronthaul networks, which connect base stations to terrestrial mid-haul clouds and backhaul networks, must support more than 30 Gbps to satisfy end-user experience expectations. Mid-haul and backhaul networks scale up from there as they aggregate traffic and may require more than 300Gbps connections while sustaining ultra-low latency end to end.
Connectivity needed in hard-to-reach places
Because 5G is in its infancy, most commercial rollouts have focused on the densest population centers and are built on non-standalone architecture. The goal for 5G, however, is for end-to-end 5G on standalone architecture to cover cities, suburbs, and rural areas.
5G cell sites provide relatively short range and require more cell site density than 4G. Where a 4G cell site may have a range of as much as 16km, a 5G site will max out at roughly 300m. This factor means the load on and cost for fronthaul networks in rural and suburban settings will both increase. This raises cost concerns for private and public network builders.
Outlying cargo ports, intermodal hubs, oil and gas refineries, heavy manufacturing sites, power plants and military facilities all provide examples of harder to reach places that will want 5G. These locations are often far from city centers and involve large, complex layouts that can be difficult for operators to access with fiber optic cables. RF links are possible here but will not support the required infrastructure data rates. For these locations to bring new applications online, operators need ultra-high throughput connectivity that also overcomes location accessibility and deployment cost issues.
Fiber comes at a cost, RF not the answer
While fiber optic cable networks can meet these high throughput requirements, they also entail substantial build costs. Additionally, fiber networks face regulatory and right-of-way hurdles that slow buildouts and increase expenses further. For large outlying locations, like oil and gas facilities and power plants, site complexity can make under surface physical connectivity impossible or excessively costly to bring in. In these scenarios, because RF typically struggles to meet the ultra-high throughput front- and mid-haul need, it does not readily fill this niche either.
OWC can fill the void
Optical wireless communication (OWC) using infrared laser technology provides a potent solution in these large industrial and critical infrastructure cases. It overcomes distance, accessibility, cost, regulation and security challenges.
Providing ultra-high throughput, low-latency connections to outlying locations is an ideal application for OWC, which is designed for both 5G and 6G services and is ready now. It can support direct line of site connections up to roughly 24km without relays, and much more with them. Because OWC eliminates the need to bring in fiber optic cabling, it is uniquely suited for traversing bodies of water, difficult terrain, or complex industrial sites where aerial or underground cabling would either be hazardous or impossible to use.
The relative ease of installation eliminates the build costs, regulations, and rights-of-way challenges fiber optic cable connections face. OWC also does not require additional RF spectrum to be acquired, licensed, or utilized, thus further reducing cost and regulatory hurdles while eliminating the need to consume or apportion additional RF spectrum.
OWC mesh networks have arrived
One of the past concerns with using OWC in, for example, front- and mid-haul networks was its solely point-to-point functionality, but the technology has evolved and matured. Now that point-to-multi-point OWC is available, by using a managed optical communications array (MOCA) technology mesh networking is supported.
MOCA technology is evolving too and will also support mobility for ultra-high throughput connections to moving targets. In the 5G world, OWC mesh networks and mobile capabilities will give private network operators, like government agencies, new options for cell-less communications or 5G with no dependence on public carrier networks. For operators, OWC reduces the cost for 5G's fronthaul infrastructure and enables additional 5G mobility services without consuming RF resources.
— Barry A. Matsumori, CEO, BridgeComm
Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash