IoT, 5G and the significance of fiber

By 2020, the burgeoning Internet of Things (IoT) will connect some 20 billion devices worldwide, according to Gartner. A multitude of connected sensors, meters and other machines will create value and efficiency across a host of data-driven consumer, enterprise and ‘smart city’ applications. The resulting growth in connections and network traffic will be unprecedented so the next few years will be critical for data center managers and operators to build infrastructure that can fulfill the demands on capacity and latency.

As more business processes and systems incorporate elements of IoT, more sensors will be embedded in devices and infrastructure, which will in turn demand greater data services that only 5G wireless systems are designed to support.

5G mobile networks capable of transmitting data significantly faster are designed to support a diverse set of IoT use cases and connect potentially more devices efficiently. CommScope anticipates that one goal of 5G will be to deliver 1,000 times more bandwidth than 4G in any given area, and that the location density of 5G cell sites will be five times that of 4G.

Essential fiber

Considering their broadband, low-latency requirements, industry consensus is that 5G radio networks will use fiber as the preferred technology for backhaul (typically connects base stations and the core wired network) and fronthaul (the connection between remote radio heads at the cell site and the mobile network control backbone), wherever possible.

The benefits can be seen in CommScope’s end-to-end radio access network (RAN) fiber solutions – spanning fiber-to-the-antenna/ fronthaul and backhaul – that alleviate network bottlenecks and provide users with a transparent and satisfying wireless experience on the network.

“5G and IoT will require a lot more fiber infrastructure than ever in the network because both require a lot of data, very high-speed data transmission rates and very low latency,” said Pat Thompson, CommScope’s VP of Solutions for Central Office/ Headend. “And to fulfill the requirements of both 5G and IoT, it has to be an optical network as the backbone for the transport of those networks.”

Such demands have also led to the emergence of edge networks and the need for edge data centers. “With the onslaught of devices that make up the IoT, processing must be done in real-time to truly reap their benefits,” said David Tanis, director of Strategic Enterprise Marketing at CommScope. “This can be accomplished with an edge data center.”

Edge computing is a “mesh network of micro data centers that process or store critical data locally and push all received data to a central data center or cloud storage repository, in a footprint of less than 100 square feet,” according to research firm IDC. In IoT use cases, edge computing reduces the backhaul traffic to the central repository.

Applied to the buildout of next-gen 5G networks, Kelly Quinn, research manager at IDC, expects telcos or mobile network operators (MNOs) to increasingly add micro-data centers that are either integrated into or located adjacent to 5G towers. Business customers would own or rent space in these micro-data centers to do edge computing, and link back to an infrastructure-as-a-service provider or central data center via a gateway.

Apart from these micro-data centers, businesses can also get network access closer to individual users – along city streets, in buildings and everywhere in between – by adding more antennas, radio heads and small cell sites as well as upgrading to multiple-input and multiple-output (MIMO) and sector-splitting technologies that increase capacity and speed of radio links.

The high density of radios for 5G across macro sites, in-building and within small cells will drive the requirement for network convergence between wired and wireless traffic.

Nimble networks

“[Network convergence] refers to delivery of services – residential, business and wireless services – over a common fiber network,” explained Ray Butler, vice president of Wireless Network Engineering at CommScope. “On the mobility end of it, we’re seeing a lot of interest, and people starting to explore how you converge a site to support fixed wireless and mobility. Those are the kind of the ripe areas we see a lot of work being done on and a lot of potential opportunity. As the industry evolves to centralized RAN and cloud RAN with network function virtualization (NFV), we see an opportunity for both capex and opex savings.”

For example, cloud RANs will virtualize the radio itself, and offload many baseband unit functions to commercial servers, greatly simplifying network management in the 5G infrastructure.

The convergence of wired and wireless networks technologies will also drive technologies like software-defined networking (SDN) and NFV that enable greater agility and cost efficiencies to edge and access networks.

In response to the demands of 5G and IoT and the expanding fiber infrastructure, MNOs are rearchitecting their central offices – to which subscribers’ home and business lines are connected in a local loop – as edge data centers. This makes sense because central offices are ideally located on the network edge where the access network or fiber optic cables terminate.

This enables performance of the converged network to be optimized for low-latency 5G/IoT use cases through measures such as mobile edge computing, which involves smaller distributed data centers forming an ‘edge cloud’ closer to cell sites and to users’ devices and machines.

The Central Office Re-architected as a Datacenter (CORD) lays the virtualized infrastructure for operators to orchestrate connectivity and cloud services for residential, enterprise and mobile customers or allow third-party providers to deliver innovative services to common customers. Customers themselves can easily configure and manage their services in near real time.

All in, 5G and IoT deployments will require new and extensive fiber networks to meet high bandwidth, low latency performance requirements. With network convergence, MNOs and data center operators can deliver a wide range of services more efficiently and quickly as they adopt new IoT-driven business models.

This is a QuestexAsia feature commissioned by CommScope.