Backhaul for 5G and the need for speed

via Flickr © one individual (CC BY-SA 2.0)

via Flickr © one individual (CC BY-SA 2.0)

  • Is there an urgent need for 5G backhaul fibre in the UK?
  • Two things (at least) mean keeping calm and carrying on is the best policy
  • Radio backhaul looks promising and demand is unlikely to skyrocket

When it comes to adequate broadband (the thing that every economy with ambitions for digital transformation knows it must have) the UK is relying on the application of market forces (plus a dose of government cajoling and a subsidy programme or two) to ensure the infrastructure is developed more or less in time to meet the expected demand - for 5G, for instance.

The extreme alternative would be to splash out on a universal fibering of the entire country with all the technology and political risks such a move would entail (just ask Australia how difficult that can be).

So instead the UK is looking to new technology and innovative business models to provide the wet string to make it all happen. It could work.

One promising avenue is radio for access and backhaul (see - Ofcom opens up fixed wireless so that ‘anyone can build a network). Another is ‘alternative’ fibre, an avenue being explored by UK telco SSE Enterprise Telecoms. It’s working with Three to unbundle 177 BT exchanges with a view to providing valuable backhaul options and meeting what it describes as significant demand for high-capacity fibre by UK businesses.

SSE is an energy company providing gas and electricity to UK consumers. Like many European energy companies it sees a way of extending its business to networking  - if you’re already down there digging and repairing pipes you may as well feed some fibre through them at the same time.

Unbundling those particular BT exchanges (running its own fibre to them to interconnect with BT  services) puts SSE within striking distance of 180,000 business postcodes across the UK, the company says.

“SSE Enterprise Telecoms has been selected by Three UK to deliver the required high capacity fibre connectivity between Three UK’s core data centres and the BT exchanges as it prepares for a 5G network rollout and improving 4G services. Three UK’s use of the 177 exchanges is the first of several potential unbundling phases,” it claims.

“By unbundling the exchanges, [the company] will effectively futureproof its offering with a network capable of delivering 100Gbps services. With this high capacity core network and backhaul businesses will be better-placed to utilise fibre-to-the-premise and broadband services not currently feasible in the UK.“

In the longer term SSE is banking on unbundled dark fibre availability so that it’s able to offer ultra high-speed services to businesses - hence its ‘future-proofing’ strategy.

According to Matthew Howett, Founder & Principal Analyst at Assembly Research, network building and interconnection can often be more about getting into position, rather than urgently making capacity available.

So is there a pent-up demand for fibre today as we’re often lead to believe?  

“I think the jury is still out on that,” says Matthew. “Some people say that you don’t really need fibre backhaul  in that many places; that there are possibilities to use radio backhaul anyway and also that the existing network - particularly in the opening phases of 5G - will be perfectly capable. I don’t see [lack of fibre everywhere] as a barrier to the launch of 5G. It may be a bit of an impediment in the longer term but over the next few years it won’t be a ‘make or break’ barrier.”

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