Date posted: 27 February 2020 – Category: Fibre Optics
With more and more devices going online, the strain on bandwidth grows heavier, especially for businesses who use cloud-based technologies. Organisations find themselves processing a stack of data that’s only growing larger, using increasingly smart and automated technologies.
In order to stay competitive, more business owners are starting to explore solutions for easing latency issues. Two are at the fore today: Full-Fibre Broadband and 5G, each with its own pros and cons.
To understand full-fibre, one needs to know how broadband is wired. There are 3 ways: ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line), FTTC (Fibre to the Cabinet), and FTTP (Fibre to the Premises).
ADSL is the oldest type of connection, many growing from the same infrastructure that supported old landlines. It uses copper cables to connect both your home to the router outside, and the router to your local telephone exchange. FTTC uses fibre cables from the telephone exchange, but copper from the router to the end user. FTTP uses a full-fibre connection from telephone exchange to your building.
The advantage of using fibre connections over copper comes from the type of material used and the mode of transmission. Fibre broadband uses optical cables made of glass. The data is transmitted by pulses of infrared light, which can transfer an exponentially larger volume of data. Today’s most modern fibre cables can support up to 50 terabits of data per second.
Data on copper connections, on the other hand, travel through electronic pulses. Electricity is slower than light, but the difference isn’t in velocity. Light can carry much more information than electromagnetic signals, and so copper transfers data at a much slower rate.
Your home or office is probably still using copper cables, at least, somewhere along the infrastructure. Only 8 percent of premises in the UK are wired with a full-fibre connection. However, the push is already underway to close old copper connections and bring the whole country over to full-fibre, according to Ofcom.
Glass or plastic fibre optic cables are typically more flexible, and less susceptible to environmental damage because they’re covered in a protective sheath. Plus, thanks to the reflective properties of the material fibre optic wires serve as a perfect conduit for light-based data transmission. The signal remains relatively intact when it reaches the end user, and repeaters can be deployed to expand the reach of the connection. This low latency will be important for businesses who cannot afford delays, such as those in the Healthcare industry.
Fibre optic cables are virtually impervious to disruptive signals inside their sheaths. They’re immune to electromagnetic signals, because they’re not metal. There’s also no way to intercept or tap information travelling through the cables–the only way to stop the connection is to physically cut the wires.
Compared to 5G, fibre is iron clad. Like most wireless technology, 5G networks are still vulnerable to security risks. For instance, you can trace the location of mobile users and send out false alerts through signal spoofing, found security researchers. Cybercriminals can also cut your connection to the network altogether through distributed-denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks.
Laying a fibre optic network is a labour intensive job. Installation can also cause a fair amount of disruption in the office or work site, particularly in areas with heavy machinery or foot traffic. In some cases, you may even need to apply for planning permission if you need to install poles or cabinets along public or conservation areas.
There are also certain hazards when handling the fibre optic cables. Each wire is basically a hair’s breadth piece of sharp glass. They can easily cut skin. Broken bits can cling to clothes, shoes, carpeting, and even food. Because of these risks hiring a team of specialists is a must.
5G is the next level in wireless connectivity after 4G LTE. It transmits data through a mix of radio frequency waves. This differs from the old standard because 4G connections only used the lower end of the radio frequency spectrum. Low-band frequencies are more reliable and result in less signal distortion, but they’re also slower. 5G uses a mix of low, mid, and high frequencies, using a method called adaptive beam switching. This means that the signal is constantly looking for the best, stable frequencies available, and hop to it to maintain strength.
Compared to the old standard, 5G can transmit data at a blistering 65,000 faster. At this speed, latency effectively becomes non-existent. Huge amounts of data can be transmitted at 4 milliseconds or less, and the network should be able to support a million connected devices per square kilometre.
With the sheer amount of bandwidth it can support, 5G has the potential to break the bottleneck and transform entire industries. Machinery in agriculture and manufacturing can become smarter, receiving and crunching terabytes of data from sensors in seconds. Faster communication also means less backlog, especially in businesses that move massive amounts of user data per day, like hospitals and banks.
By reducing latency, 5G connections also eliminate the barriers to adoption of bandwidth-hungry technology like virtual reality and augmented reality. Problems like VR sickness will become a thing of the past. With greater accessibility, the VR/AR may finally move out of its video gaming box and into business cases for telemedicine, architecture, and immersive retail–to name a few.
Wireless data connections travel on a spectrum. The higher you go, the more information you can transmit at greater speeds. Yet greater capacity has a trade-off: range. Higher band frequencies can transmit at 1-3Gbps, but lose the ability to penetrate virtually any solid material. Even lower frequencies can only push the signal through untreated glass.
Obviously, offices won’t be migrating out to parks just to connect to 5G networks. To make connections work, buildings will need to install extra hardware like in-house radios or signal boosters.
5G signals will ride on air, not cable. However, the signal doesn’t simply zip through space to arrive at the end user. Left alone radio frequencies can only travel so far. Low-band frequencies have a broad range, but are too slow to meet maximum 5G standards.
In order for 5G to live up to the hype, it’s going to need more cell sites. In rural areas with a lot of space, erecting more towers won’t be a significant problem. However, the architecture becomes notably more difficult in densely populated cities, where the demand for 5G is highest. To address the problem network providers are looking to install small cells–basically miniature radio towers that can be mounted on poles and buildings–but we’re still quite a way away from full deployment.
A full-fibre connection is the clear winner in terms of reliability, even over other cable connections like ADSL or FTTC. Fibre broadband is also the safer, practical choice if your businesses handles highly sensitive data, at least until the telecommunications industry offers more satisfying security protocols for 5G.
As we’re still at the early stages of 5G adoption, opportunities to connect will be quite limited for most. Businesses who do find themselves within reliable 5G coverage may want to consider going wireless for some applications, like software that crunches large amounts of data, sharing files across the cloud, or rendering videos.
Maybe when it comes to 5G the better question to ask today is how you can prepare your business for the shift. With the ever expanding Internet of Things, the normalisation of remote work, and emerging AI-enabled technologies like self-driving cars, ultra-speed wireless connectivity is a matter of when, not if. The need to jump to 5G may not be today for most, yet planning for the switch early and staying abreast of developments in your area can help future-proof your business.
21 Station Road Workshops, Station Rd, Bristol, BS15 4PJ
Matt Nice, Director of ICT, Bristol Grammar School