Author: Bennett Cyphers Staff Technologist
A publication of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, October 11, 2019
5G is a big step forward, but it is not a panacea. Millimeter-wave 5G will use more bandwidth to serve fewer devices in a smaller area, so it should be able to deliver true gigabit speeds. It should be able to deliver last-hop latencies that are comparable to, or even better than, fiber-to-the-home. However, mmWave deployments will require running fiber-optic cables to individual buildings in order to be useful. In other words, the most exciting parts of 5G will supplement, rather than replace, fiber-to-the-home.
Fiber is the superior medium for carrying fixed broadband by almost every metric: available bandwidth, SNR, theoretical capacity, real-world throughput, latency, and jitter. Furthermore, fiber cables can be installed now and upgraded for decades to come, while most existing coax infrastructure will likely need to be replaced within the next few years in order to keep up with consumer demand. While 5G is a promising upgrade over 4G, long-range wireless broadband cannot outperform fiber as a last-mile link to homes and businesses. In highly populated areas, mmWave 5G will be a supplement to, not a replacement for, fiber-to-the-home. In rural areas, attempting to install enough fiber to enough base stations to provide full mmWave coverage makes less sense than to simply run wireline service to each home. And to top it off, future upgrades to both DOCSIS and wireless broadband will require laying many miles of new fiber. As a result, civic planners looking ahead should invest in last-mile fiber infrastructure today. Fiber-to-the-home is the best option to serve most Americans with high-speed, low-latency broadband now, and it will remain so for the foreseeable future.