Underpinning 5G deployment is network densification, achieved through the proliferation of small cells. To deliver high performance, each of those cells requires large, scalable backhaul connections. Traditionally this was achieved through leased lines, but…
Leased lines from CSPs are not always readily available, are mostly capacity inflexible and can represent an expensive option for mobile backhaul.
It’s noteworthy that for 3G and 4G many operators have chosen to overbuild their bought-in leased line connections with their own infrastructure, to lower their operating overheads.
Alternatively, ‘Dark Fibre’ connections from 3rd parties can offer MNOs both flexibility and cost advantages when establishing their backhaul networks; this is particularly true when you consider the potential bandwidth demands of 5G.
The recent failure of Ofcom’s regulatory intervention on Dark Fibre Access (DFA) represented a major turning point for 5G, with many a business case hitting the waste paper basket. Had this been successful, this remedy would have obligated Openreach to provide almost ubiquitous coverage of dark fibre services via its network.
Equally, Ofcom’s consultation on Openreach Duct and Pole Access (DPA) and remedies for Physical Infrastructure Access (PIA) has hit another snag as its definition of applicability has moved to ‘Mixed Use’ – where companies can lay fibre for consumers and large businesses, provided the purpose of the network is primarily to deliver broadband to homes and small offices – from ‘Any Use’, where it started.
This would appear to negate the possibility of MNOs applying the PIA remedy solely to build 5G backhaul services, ensuring that the debate in this area is set to rumble on for some time to come.
With emergent CSPs, or Alt-Nets, actively looking to fully exploit ‘Mixed Use’ PIA for both Metro and Access Network applications, this situation represents a golden opportunity for them to enhance their wholesale offerings and expand their coverage for coverage for MNOs deploying 5G.
So, assuming the PIA interpretation is correct and remains unchanged,
Alternative Network CSPs investing in Fibre-centric infrastructures may turn out to be best positioned to support 5G.
Furthermore, they can do this with fewer companies vying for the PIA capacity which, by definition, is limited by the usable physical capacity of BT’s duct and pole assets.
But is it enough?
5G has huge potential to revolutionalise mobile broadband and to enable the IoT, with almost infinite possibilities.
Alt-Nets with all their energy and ambition will undoubtedly meet some of this challenge in providing a national Dark Fibre infrastructure.
It’s likely that 5G rollouts will focus on the denser urban areas first. Perhaps Openreach or Virgin Media, then, with their extensive local loop networks, will step forward with reasonably priced and flexible (deep) dark fibre offerings?
Or will part of the solution be found in Managed Services such as Openreach’s latest OSA Fibre Connect product proposal which offers a Managed Wavelength service along with Self-service wavelengths on demand. Managed High Bandwidth Services occupy a competitive market place, so their place in paving the way for 5G will come down to price and availability, when compared to Dark Fibre or DPA enabled fibre infrastructures.
More work to be done
In the meantime, MNOs will continue to argue their case for ‘any use’ DPA and for a revised DFA intervention with Ofcom.
Interestingly, Openreach is pursuing a parallel consultation with industry regarding a collaborative approach to a large-scale UK-wide FTTH roll-out programme. This may have been strengthened by the current regulatory positions on DFA and DPA.
Some leading industry figures argue that a more community-centric approach, where Local Authorities take the lead in deploying government funded, socially inclusive and democratic wholesale fibre assets, might be the answer. However, the government doesn’t appear to agree, as the recent £400M of DCMS funds have been awarded directly to the Alt-Nets via nominated fund managers.
For now, with competition rising, regulation moving and technology evolving, it looks like the telecoms industry is set for an interesting time. It appears that a lack of cohesive UK critical infrastructure planning and strategy continues to pervade, and there’s a real danger that the UK could be left behind for fibre derived services, especially 5G.