5G vs fibre broadband - What are benefits of going wireless?


As 5G commences its rollout over the coming year, one of the first big consumer-facing applications will be 5G broadband.

But will such mobile-oriented home and business broadband services really be 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 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) will actually do 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 broadband would ensure that this final stretch is no longer a weak point. A recent Ovum report predicted that large-scale 5G broadband deployment would consistently support average speeds of 80–100Mbps.

That’s about as fast as the fastest fixed broadband packages that are available in major UK cities.

5G broadband will be 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 broadband’s speeds may only match rather than exceed those of the current top-end fixed broadband speeds, at around 80Mbps. But only 15% of the UK currently enjoys such speeds, and as many as 860,000 UK premises are getting speeds lower than 10Mbps.

All 5G broadband 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 so much not that 5G broadband will be faster than fixed broadband, then, but that it will be faster for more people.

5G broadband will be cheaper

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

There will be 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 broadband will cost operators half as much to deploy.

The 5G broadband solution will be plug and play - as easy as plugging in a wireless router. 5G broadband companies will be 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 broadband will be able to save families an estimated £240 per year on line rental costs alone.

Contract lengths could also be shorter, as operators won’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 broadband 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 broadband and the mobile factor

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

The infrastructure that 5G broadband will use - those small cell transmitters that will soon be dotted all around our cities - is the exact same infrastructure that will form the basis of the 5G mobile network.

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.

How do we know that telecoms companies will adopt 5G broadband?

Of course, until 5G starts rolling out in 2019 and 2020, all of this is theoretical. Fixed broadband, on the other hand, is a known quantity, and it’s improving all the time (albeit slowly).

How do we know that 5G broadband will become a real thing? Because the market is already moving in that direction, and investment is heavy in the kind of equipment that will make 5G broadband a reality.

As Ovum says in its report, “Virtually all suppliers of telecom equipment have demonstrated their 5G-FWA equipment”.

It’s well documented that the world’s biggest network operators and telecommunications equipment companies have been investing in 5G broadband trials. Many of those have already committed to providing a commercial 5G broadband service, including EE, which plans to launch a ‘5G Home’ router in 2019.

Three also plans to launch a 5G broadband service in 2019, and has already trialled 5G broadband with the help of Huawei. And as BT owns EE and has a major fixed broadband service already, it too is likely to explore 5G broadband.

And that’s just in the UK. Work towards 5G broadband is happening all over the world, such as with Verizon in the US and O2 in Germany. So we know it’s coming, and soon.

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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