5G vs fibre - Will 5G replace fibre broadband?

8 July 2021

5G

As 5G continues rolling out across the UK, 5G broadband is becoming one of the first big consumer-facing applications of it.

But are such mobile-oriented home and business broadband services really a viable alternative to the current fixed broadband standard? The following article runs through the pros and cons of each.

First, let’s define exactly what we mean by 5G broadband.

What do we mean by 5G broadband?

We know that standard broadband incorporates a series of physical connections. Generally, this involves fixed fibre lines running from an exchange to a cabinet within a certain radius of your property, then more physical cabling (ideally fibre but often copper) from there to your home.

The term ‘5G broadband’ can be a little misleading, because it seems to suggest a switch to a completely wireless broadband solution. This isn’t strictly accurate.

What 5G broadband (aka 5G Fixed Wireless Access, or FWA) actually does is replace that ‘final mile’ physical connection with a wireless 5G network connection. The vast majority of these 5G networks will use largely the same kind of physical fibre connections as standard fixed broadband.

The last mile bottleneck

Currently, the ‘last mile’ of a standard broadband connection is the most problematic. It can take a lot of work and money fitting high speed fibre optic cable from that cabinet to an individual property.

This is why many companies continue to use old fashioned copper connections in many locations. This proves to be a bit of a bottleneck when it comes to potential broadband performance.

5G would ensure that this final stretch is no longer a weak point. A 2018 Ovum report predicted that large-scale 5G deployment would consistently support average speeds of 80–100Mbps.

That prediction is seemingly being borne out too, in fact if anything it was a conservative estimate, with Three for example reporting average 5G home broadband speeds of 200Mbps in parts of NW1 at the time of writing (July 2021). Some other regions can expect higher or lower speeds than that, but it’s unlikely that the average would drop below around 80Mbps anywhere.

While that’s not as fast as the very speediest fibre broadband packages, this is just an average remember – peak speeds will be higher than this, and most fibre broadband even in urban locations is in line with the speeds offered by 5G broadband.

5G is more consistently fast

The fastest fixed broadband packages are often restricted to cities, large towns and big businesses. The logistics of hooking up premises with fibre connectivity means that more remote or sparsely populated areas often have to make do with sub-par broadband.

5G's speeds may only match rather than exceed those of the current top-end fixed broadband speeds, but only 5% of the UK currently enjoy average speeds of 300Mbps or higher according to a November 2020 report from Ofcom, and 8% of consumers are still getting average speeds of lower than 10Mbps.

All 5G will need to achieve those higher speeds is a single decent physical connection to the area and the necessary 5G infrastructure. This will come in the form of easy-to-install small base stations dotted around on street furniture and on top of buildings.

It’s not so much that 5G is or will be faster than fixed broadband, then, but that it will be faster for more people.

5G can be cheaper

The benefits of 5G broadband, or 5G FWA, over fixed broadband aren’t purely about speed. Another major benefit to 5G is its low cost.

There’s no need to arrange for an engineer to physically hook your house up with high speed cabling. Nor will providers need to pay large civil engineering costs for things like digging up roads to lay cabling down. In fact, it’s estimated that 5G will cost operators half as much to deploy.

The 5G solution is also plug and play - as easy as plugging in a wireless router. 5G companies are able to post these out with instructions for self-installation rather than paying an employee to visit, as is the case with the fixed broadband offerings from BT, Sky and Virgin.

Those savings will inevitably be passed on to you, the customer. Ovum predicts that 5G will be able to save families an estimated £240 per year on line rental costs alone.

Contract lengths are also sometimes shorter, as operators don’t need to recoup any installation costs. The ability to change more often should provide a more competitive broadband landscape.

Fixed broadband is less costly to maintain

So far, we’ve discussed all of the positive elements of 5G over fixed broadband. But there is one particular way in which fixed broadband trumps this upstart alternative.

We’re talking about operational expenditure. Put simply, fixed broadband is much cheaper to run than 5G broadband, thanks to things like electrical usage and maintenance costs. In fact, it’s estimated that the operational expenditure of 5G broadband could be five times that of fixed.

This needs to be balanced against the lower capital expenditure of 5G broadband, as mentioned above. But there’s another factor that makes 5G broadband a worthwhile investment for operators.

5G and the mobile factor

While 5G broadband is quite expensive for network operators to maintain, any investment into it will benefit more than just 5G broadband.

The infrastructure that 5G broadband uses - those small cell transmitters that are increasingly being dotted all around our cities, along with larger masts - is the exact same infrastructure that forms the basis of 5G mobile networks.

This means that any investment in 5G broadband is an investment in 5G generally.

Why hasn’t mobile broadband replaced fixed broadband already?

Given the huge benefits to a mobile network-based broadband service, you might wonder why we haven’t seen one replace fixed broadband already.

The simple answer to that is that none of the mobile network generations have been up to the task. Right up to and including 4G, mobile networks have been slower than their wired counterparts, with significantly lower capacity and higher latency (slower response times).

It’s also worth noting that 4G FWA has actually played a useful role in certain countries with a poor broadband set-up, such as in Italy. In countries such as the UK, where fibre connections are much more numerous, there simply hasn’t been the same call for it.

5G FWA will change all of that, and it’s now available to a growing number of people. So if you’re sick of your broadband it’s worth considering a switch.

Jon Mundy
About Jon Mundy

Technical Writer at 5G.co.uk

Jon has nine years experience of writing and editing copy for leading publications, as well as attending technology shows and events and conducting interviews. Currently working with 5G.co.uk, TechRadar, Trusted Reviews, T3, Digital Spy, What Mobile, Pocket Gamer, and The Gadget Show.

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