Busting the Fiber Myth
Fiber VS wireless - the greatest debate of the decade
By Dori Erann, Ceregon, March 18, 2021
OK, OK, it may not be the greatest debate of the decade. I can probably think of several that are more heated and contentious. But it is certainly a debate that is gaining momentum and attention in the technology space, and we at Ceragon felt it needed addressing.
Recently, Fiber Optic Cable technology has taken center stage and become the focus of many of the network buildout plans in the United States. With the RDOF program under way, most of the funds have been promised to all-Fiber or Fiber-Wireless hybrid networks. The sentiment in the market is that Fiber is the end-all solution to get broadband delivered to rural American communities.
This begs the question, “Is it too good to be true?”. Fiber has the reputation of being reliable and high capacity. But there are several factors for RDOF winners, as well as other service providers in Rural America, to consider for their network deployments. The ‘Myth’ of fiber may be building unreasonable expectations that may leave operators in a tough spot. RDOF winners may not be able to comply with their buildout promises, and other operators may invest a lot of money that will still leave certain requirements unmet.
BREAKING THE MYTH OF FIBER – IT MAY BE TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE
While Fiber Optic Cable had been the staple for many Internet network deployments in past years, Fixed Wireless Internet access is still the most viable choice for many WISPs and other operators. When properly designed and deployed, fixed wireless solutions offer performance consistency and dependability, high bandwidth, lower latency, faster time-to-market, and a far lower cost to deploy and maintain over time.
Let’s break down some of the misconceptions about fiber and examine where Fixed Wireless technology can be more advantageous and should still be considered a “must-have” solution for service providers:
1. INSTALLATION TIME / TIME TO MARKET:
Fiber takes months, and sometimes years, to build. On the other hand, wireless links can be installed and ready for operation in a matter of days. RDOF winners have stringent timelines that they must meet. The time to plan, permit, dig, and install the fiber over the proposed areas may take far longer than anticipated or promised in the designs provided to the FCC. These time-consuming ventures may leave operators in the lurch and facing significant penalties.
2. INTERNET SPEED:
For most subscribers, the speeds offered on a Fixed Wireless link can be as good as those offered with fiber optic. Businesses often utilize internet connections with speed that ranges between 10 Mbps to 500 Mbps. Fixed Wireless technology networks, particularly those leveraging licensed spectrum in point-to-point configurations, can easily support these speeds while providing a comparatively higher level of dependability that is required for uninterrupted business applications.
At Ceragon, our internally developed chipset enables us to pivot quickly to changing industry trends, adopt technology faster, and be first-to-market with significant capacity leaps.
The cost of getting fiber deployed is quite significant. The Department of Transportation has compiled statistics that put the average cost of laying fiber at $27,000 per mile (April 12, 2017). Alternatively, wireless links can be deployed at a fraction, often as low as 1/10th, of the cost. Additionally, because the time-to-market is so quick and the cost is lower, achieving a positive return-on-investment (ROI) is significantly reduced and can be done in several months. Lastly, using wireless links, extending and expanding the network can be done quickly and affordably without the need to start permitting and digging again.
Latency is the time it takes for a signal to travel (or propagate) from point A to point B. Higher latency can negatively impact the applications being run on a network. For instance, the higher the latency, the more buffering a user streaming video may encounter, or interruptions in real-time gaming. Similarly, low latency is extremely important in optimal voice communication, to experience good quality speech with no delays.
Many people do not realize that Fiber latency is quite a bit higher than that of wireless. Primarily because it is often advertised as being extremely low. In an ideal world, over a very short distance, Fiber may, indeed, have very low latency. But once combined with twist and turns in the Fiber path, longer distances, and peripheral equipment (like switches), the latency of a Fiber network is exponentially higher. Wireless latency is typically consistent and as low as 4 μs, offering a more efficient and reliable connectivity experience. For that reason, wireless links are the preferred transport technology in the financial industry. The lower latency is desirable for intensive real-time transactions.
As it stands, RDOF winners will have their networks rigorously tested by the FCC over the time of their deployment and operation. They will have to prove that their networks adhere to some basic parameters and Latency is one of those key factors that will be measured. Any failure to comply with the minimum latency requirements will result in serious penalties.
5. EASE OF INSTALLATION:
The installation of Fiber Optic Cables can be extremely tedious and require a large pool of commercial resources. Many variables can impact the complexity of a Fiber deployment including:
Geography – is the terrain especially challenging, are there hills, mountains, rivers, forests that need to be circumvented?
Distance – the longer the distance, the more time it will take to complete the digging and laying of the cable, and the more hurdles an operator will encounter that may hinder the deployment
Land ownership – are there specific areas that need to cross over privately owned land and what will that take to gain the authorization?
Cross-municipal or county lines – digging and laying Fiber requires permitting, and the coordination of jurisdictions for both granting rights-of-way, settling disputes, and synchronization among the public authorities involved
On the other hand, wireless overcomes all these challenges with ease. For example, Microwave signals can pass over rivers and mountains, while a fiber optic line will need to follow existing infrastructure such as roads and bridges. Better still, while an operator is taking months and months to overcome these challenges, a large crew, legal expertise, and a hefty purse, a wireless operator can get the wireless network deployed in mere days, a minimal crew (as little as 2-6), and far fewer resources.
Fiber optic cables are not infallible. In fact, they are susceptible to damage as they typically require long wires that run underground covering a long distance of space. Breaks in the cables can be caused by a variety of reasons, disrupting connectivity. Construction, water, rodents, lightning, voltage, and ice are all culprits, bringing network traffic to a halt by severing the fiber optic cable. Conversely, when properly designed and deployed Microwave Fixed Wireless links can offer reliability as high as 99.999% in many circumstances. It facilitates unwavering connectivity with uninterrupted service and an unmatched level of efficiency.
Again, in the RDOF networks, reliability will be measured by the FCC, and operators must comply with high levels of reliability, proving their networks are up and running at 80% of the promised capacity, 80% of the time. This means they cannot afford to have capacity drops and service disruptions, or else they will suffer hefty penalties and even face the danger of their funding being denied.
7. ENDURANCE AND REDUNDANCY:
Due to its reliability, even in Fiber Optic networks, wireless is often installed for backup and redundancy to manage the risk of communication loss and minimize downtime.
There are many unforeseen factors that could interrupt a fiber optic network; hence many operators implement Fixed Wireless links as a standby system in case of any outage or service degradation.
Fiber suppliers will often present fiber networks as far more secure than wireless. However, there are military-grade protocols, validations, and certifications that can be incorporated in order to provide the most hardened and cybersecure wireless networks. For instance, Ceragon has received the FIPS 140-2 validation – which means that our solution can be used by the military and government with peace of mind. Furthermore, the highest level of encryption, algorithms, and protocols are implemented into the software to ensure cybersecurity and resistance to breaches.
9. AERIAL FIBER INSTALLATIONS
Many of the above-mentioned points are relevant to Aerial Fiber deployments. But there are also a few additional considerations when installing these networks. Aerial Fiber is often mixed with copper and coax cables, usually in a very disorganized manner. If one cable must be replaced, it may cause a substantial disruption or need for redirection of all cables. If a pole needs to be replaced, an operator faces a bigger mess and considerable downtimes.
If you believe in the ‘Myth of Fiber’, you will undoubtedly believe that Fiber is ‘the’ solution to deliver broadband connectivity to rural communities across America. But the myth may be overpromising on its capabilities. The Fiber Optic market will continue to see significant growth over the next few years, particularly in the United States, with programs like RDOF to help fund and drive the deployment of these networks. However, operators cannot afford to discount or forget the value of wireless. Wireless technology is still a more ideal solution for many regions and in various scenarios. It still outshines fiber on several key considerations, including latency, reliability, and deployment cost, ease and speed. And where Fiber is planned to be deployed, wireless can help with faster time-to-market while the fiber is being installed, and then serve as an extension, or redundancy, to the existing fiber.