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

23 March 2022

5G

The battle of 5G vs fibre is underway in the UK, but does this mean the end for cable internet?

As 5G rolls out across the UK the reality of high-speed wireless internet connectivity, wherever you live, has become a reality. But with wired broadband fibre internet hitting faster speeds than ever and with greater coverage, can 5G spell the end of a physically connected internet?

According to Ericsson, by 2024 5G networks will boast 1.9 billion subscribers, carry 35 percent of the world’s mobile data traffic, and cover 45 percent of the global population. 

Yet the answer could be that we use a little bit of both.

What is 5G broadband?

One common confusion is with 5G smartphone networks and 5G broadband. The latter actually uses fibre cable connections like current wired broadband infrastructure. So you get the fastest speeds using fibre cabling, to the broadband cabinet on the street.

This is where it can slow with wired broadband as copper cabling is used to bridge the gap to properties. Or it can get more expensive in the case of fibre to the premises cabling. That’s avoided with 5G which can bridge that final gap wirelessly.

This means that 5G broadband, aka 5G Fixed Wireless Access or FWA, replaces that last distance, often called ‘the last mile’. This saves money, time and installation effort.

The last mile bottleneck in fibre

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. While major providers like Virgin and BT are rolling out more Fibre To The Premises (FTTP) cabled internet, this isn’t expected to offer nationwide coverage until 2033.

Ofcom estimates that in the UK there are around 123,000 properties with speeds that are less than 10Mbps. Many of these areas could be reached by high-speed 5G where fixed line broadband has not managed to connect them. 

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 appears accurate, in fact if anything it was a conservative estimate, with Three reporting average 5G home broadband speeds of 200Mbps in parts of NW1 in 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, hitting just over 1,000Mbps, this is just an average  – 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 versus fibre at a glance

Parameter

5G

Fibre

Tech

Radio waves over the air

Light transmitted through optic cables

Speed

20Gbps down, 10Gbps up (theoretical)

100Gbps (theoretical)

Reach

300 metres

70kms

Response time

Slower than Fibre

Faster than 5G

Last mile rollout

Fast rollout

Expensive and slow

Cost to you

Cheaper than fibre

Higher than 5G

Installation cost

Low

Higher

Operational cost

Five times higher

Lower than 5G

5G is more consistent than fibre

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 enjoys 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. As of March 2021 the median average download speed in UK homes was 50.4Mbps.

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

One major advantage of fibre over 5G broadband is the cost to maintain that infrastructure. The operational infrastructure cost to have 5G up and running could be as high as five times that of fixed fibre.

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. This is important as a more widely covered areas can help to fix issues in that last connection leg, which 5G can struggle with. Matthew Howlett, an analyst from Assembly Research commented: “The problem with the final leg still being wireless is easily illustrated by the problems people have with existing wi-fi. People often find they cannot cover their whole home without additional wireless repeaters.”

“In the worst-case scenario, a double decker bus could park between you and the lamp post across the street. Full-fibre into the building technically gives a much better experience and avoids the variables that 5G cannot always overcome.”

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 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 broadband 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.

While 4G was capped on data limits, this isn’t the case for 5G where those limits have largely been abolished. Ovum says the average UK household uses 190GB per month and that’s only going to increase, predicted to hit 516GB by 2023.

So 5G broadband lacks 4G broadband’s problems, 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.

Kevin Thomas
About Kevin Thomas

Company director for our 4 websites as follows: 

  • 3G.co.uk 
  • 4G.co.uk
  • 5G.co.uk 
  • SIMOnly.co.uk

Kevin Thomas has worked for companies AT&T and BT with 15 years practical experience in the world of telecoms. He has a HND in telecommunications.

Kevin has also  worked in the world of Telecom reporting for 18 years. He has joint responsibility for 3G.co.uk and SIMOnly.co.uk and is lead Director for 5G.co.uk.

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