The global COVID-19 pandemic has profound implications on every aspect of society. None more than in the communications and IT industries, where digital transformation has been accelerated by at least a decade, if not more. The result is driving towards symmetrical high-bandwidth, low latency connectivity that enables an equitable digital society everywhere, regardless of physical location or economic means.
The evidence for this transformation is quite clear. Consider:
- OpenVault reported that upstream usage grew 63% — from 19 GB to 31 GB — between December 2019 and December 2020. (https://www.telecompetitor.com/report-confirms-historic-growth-in-pandemic-upstream-internet-traffic/)
- Verizon reported that compared to pre-pandemic levels, gaming was up 82%, VPN connections were up 72%, and use of collaborative tools was up by a factor of 10. (https://www.verizon.com/about/news/how-americans-are-spending-their-time-temporary-new-normal)
- In the span of 4 months in the wake of pandemic lockdowns, Comcast’s network experienced almost 2 years-worth of traffic growth. (https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20210302005979/en)
- The percentage of broadband households that had a remote healthcare visit increased from 15% in 2019 to 41% in 2020. (https://www.parksassociates.com/blog/article/pr-01202021)
- The year-over-year broadband subscriber growth rate now stands at 4.7%, a 74% increase from the 2.7% rate pre-COVID. (MoffetNathanson, https://www.moffettnathanson.com/)
- 82% of wireless Internet service providers (WISPs) upgraded their delivery networks since COVID began and 58% have purchased additional capacity from suppliers. (http://wispa.org/news_manager.php?page=22462)
Every aspect of society is impacted, with this acceleration driving demand for digital applications in education, healthcare, entertainment, transportation, collaboration, commerce, and industry. Consumers need to be able to work, learn, convalesce, and play, from just about anywhere. Businesses need to transform their operations to enable employees and engage customers in a digital-first world. Industry needs to harness emerging technologies like mobile edge computing (MEC) and SD-WAN to gain efficiencies and global reach.
To deliver on this reality, what is required is a converged communications network — with both wireline and wireless components that are working in-synch to deliver always-on connectivity everywhere. The piecemeal approach of the past when multiple networks worked independently but alongside each other no longer suffices. A robust converged communications network has emerged as the utility of today, equivalent to the ubiquity of the electrical grid.
For communications service providers (CSPs) and communities, one key lesson from COVID-19 is the importance of a converged communications network built to deliver any application. This approach requires careful planning, and it begins with a fiber broadband foundation. That foundation enables a converged wireline and wireless broadband network that ensures that the challenge of accelerated digital transformation is met.
No stranger to CSPs, fiber optics have long since played a major role in networks. Historically, a fiber network enabled connectivity to the home and small business, either with fiber all the way to the premises or to the neighborhood, feeding other media into the home. Alongside that network, a separate fiber network is deployed to serve large business and enterprise, often with a point-to-point architecture. To bring wireless connectivity to a community, fiber optics are used to connect towers and other wireless access points, providing the necessary backhaul for mobility and fixed wireless access.
These multiple networks were expensive to build and operate. Considering that 60% or more of a network construction budget is captured by labor costs, building 2 or 3 overlapping networks can be quite costly. Additionally, maintaining those 3 networks with 3 different management and provisioning systems creates upwardly spiraling operational expenses. Beyond the prohibitive costs, this approach does not support digital transformation. It’s too inefficient and requires too much upgrading to stay current.
The One-Build Approach and Benefits
Replacing that approach with one network build for all applications is now achievable. To achieve it, though, requires a step back for planning purposes before leaping directly to building or overbuilding the network. CSPs and communities need to gain a comprehensive view of the needs of the community, both now and in its potential future.
Key questions include:
- How much enterprise connectivity is needed now, and what’s the growth opportunity for the future?
- What’s the density of residential dwellings, and are there pockets of growth on the horizon?
- Where are community anchor institutions located?
- What are the current and future needs for Wi-Fi wireless access points throughout the community?
- Are fixed wireless access points in use, or could they be used to fill hard-to-reach locations?
- Where and how many tower locations and wireless access points need connectivity for 4G and 5G?
- Where are additional access points and small cells needed for 5G access and mobile edge computing applications for industry?
- What’s the need for private network connectivity for industry?
- How many data centers are on the network?
- How can added network capacity contribute to economic development opportunities for the community?
When these and other questions are answered, CSPs and communities are in a much better position to build one converged fiber network that meets all current and future digital society needs. A true converged build leverages one sheath to house all the fiber necessary to meet any application. The stakes are high, and it’s important to get this right from the beginning. The last thing a CSP wants to do is deploy a network, only to find out 5 to 10 years later that the network is inadequate for the job at hand.
It’s important to realize that labor costs are the majority of network construction costs. This is where One Infrastructure becomes so critical. The extra capacity that a CSP can add to a network build in the form of “more glass” is relatively minor in cost compared to added labor expense.
In other words, the labor expense is relatively the same for building one network that can meet the digital society needs of a community for the next 50 years or only the next 10 years. Leveraging that labor expense to build the capacity for the next 50 years is the goal, rather than having to rebuild or overbuild in 10 years because of poor capacity planning, paying for that same labor expense multiple times.
Once the proper fiber capacity is in place, CSPs only have to swap out the end electronics to meet the changing demands of the marketplace — not overbuild with more fiber. Technologies like NG-PON2 give CSPs the capability to serve residential, SMB, enterprise, and wireless backhaul, all from a single network with a single network management system. A CSP just needs to ensure that it has the capacity required in the form of fiber to meet whatever bandwidth need presents itself.
One doesn’t have to look any further than 2020-2021 to understand the implications. The unforeseen need for additional network capacity due to the COVID-19 pandemic is a cautionary tale. CSPs that have taken the One Infrastructure, Any Application approach are in a position to not only withstand the network onslaught but capitalize on it.
A Word About 5G
Mobile operators are in the process of upgrading their networks to 5G, which plays an important role in enabling this emerging digital society. The fiber demand generated by 5G is well documented. There is no 5G without adequate fiber backhaul. These 2 technologies have a symbiotic relationship, helping bring the promise of One Infrastructure, Any Application to life. 5G presents a tremendous opportunity for wireline CSPs who can meet the explosive demand for fiber backhaul that comes with it.
Wireless carriers are going to come calling for fiber connectivity. If there is a 4G network in your community today, 5G will come eventually. CSPs who plan for it, and have the backhaul capacity on hand when wireless carriers come calling, stand to capitalize on the 5G trend. CSPs who must add capacity to meet a 5G backhaul request put that opportunity at risk. Time is of the essence to best position CSPs to maximize the opportunity 5G will bring.
The global COVID-19 pandemic accelerated society’s transition to a digital world. It’s laid bare both the challenges and opportunities for this transformation. The communications industry has responded in kind, and is rising to the challenge. A digital society has emerged, and robust connectivity is needed everywhere.
To continue to meet this challenge, CSPs need to evaluate their network planning and pursue a One Build, One Infrastructure, Any Application approach with fiber broadband as the foundation. In so doing, CSPs are positioned to enable any application, anywhere — securing their future while meeting the digital needs of their community for the next 50 years.
For more information, visit corning.com/opcomm.
Follow Kevin Baker on (https://www.linkedin.com/in/kevin-baker-29b7293)