5G: Is it a threat to fiber?

August 21, 2019

 • BY Ron Holcomb

A contractor hangs fiber lines in the Battle Ground build area in July 2019
A contractor hangs fiber lines in the Battle Ground build area in July 2019
A contractor hangs fiber lines in the Battle Ground build area in July 2019
A contractor hangs fiber lines in the Battle Ground build area in July 2019

I’ve been asked a few times how the fiber lines we’re building today will stand up to the promises of tomorrow’s wireless internet technology. While there are a lot of technological promises on the horizon, we can’t know for certain how they are all going to play out. Here are some things we do know today about one of the leading contenders.

One of the leading contenders is 5G (short for fifth-generation wireless), a new wireless cellular standard that’s just starting to appear in major cities now. It promises higher speeds, more device capacity, and lower latency (the round trip time from the browser to the server, usually measured in milliseconds). However, there are several inherent caveats to these promises.

First, fiber is the backbone of all wireless service. Cellular connectivity is made possible by existing fiber lines to the cellular towers. Just like the WiFi in your home, that wireless connection is only as good as the wired connection that enables it.

It’s a challenging business case for the national providers to build the necessary fiber lines in rural areas to enable 5G service. Our fiber investment gives the national providers the more manageable option of purchasing connectivity from us. If that day comes, 5G wireless service will be useful in enabling connectivity away from home, such as in a farmer’s tractor, grain bin or barns. Many futurists are imagining farms covered with sensors that collect data to feed back to machinery and give farmers full visibility to all their crops, day and night.

Second is the limitation of spectral space in the air. There is simply not enough wireless spectrum to cover all the devices we continually connect to the internet and the bandwidth they require. This doesn’t matter as much when you’re just wanting to listen to music in the car or check the weather at the park. But at home where you want to watch HD television and movies over the internet, this matters a lot. Fiber service does not have this limitation, allowing you to use as much as you wish.

Finally, wireless technology reliability is prone to many affecting factors such as weather, trees, line of sight, large farming equipment, interior wall material/construction, and even solar activity. Wired fiber connections work rain or shine. And, in many cases, they even work when the power is out as fiber lines are stronger and more durable than copper or aluminum electric lines.

No one can predict the future with complete certainty, but all indications today point toward a future based on wired connectivity. We’re very excited about the fiber investment we’re making in the communities we serve and we’re confident that we’ll reap the benefits for years to come.

Ron Holcomb

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Ron is a 30 year veteran of the electric utility industry with extensive experience in power supply, advanced grid technologies, essential service operations, economic development and value-driven growth initiatives for combined electric and telecommunication utilities. During his career, he has led three utilities as President/CEO and provided management consulting to utilities across the country. Ron joined Tipmont REMC as CEO in summer 2013. He holds a B.S. in Physics from Austin Peay State University and an MBA from Murray State University.