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As the world moves into the seamless communications era of 5G and the internet of things (IoT), the question on everyone's lips is: 'How are we going to optimize the wireless network to meet the demands on capacity and speed?' This discussion has also brought debate around whether fixed networks will still be needed in the era of 5G. Surely if 5G delivers on everything it promises, the fixed network will become obsolete as consumers rely on mobile connectivity for their online needs, right?

Contrary to some perceptions in the market today, the opposite is actually true. In fact, some may say that while the world is going wireless, wireless is going fixed. We have reached a tipping point where mobile evolutions are increasingly influenced by the availability of cost-effective and geographically widespread backhaul solutions. While mobile operators have traditionally relied on dedicated networks to connect their cell sites to their core networks, they now have the opportunity to reduce costs by handing off mobile traffic to the fixed network.

5G will change the game and will make fixed networks more crucial than ever. So, what role will fixed networks play and how can operators ensure they maximize their infrastructures to take their slice of the lucrative 5G pie?

Delivering gigabit speeds
Service providers in the Middle East, especially in the Gulf Area, are working on the development of their 2020 vision and beyond. This network strategy evolution addresses the relentless demand for increasing bandwidth, triggered by new service offerings - moving the benchmark from 1Gbps to 10Gbps. At the same time, smart cities are being built to increase competitiveness, attract investments and improve the quality of life of their citizens. With the emergence of e-services (e-health, e-government, etc.), the objective is to ensure that the majority of services offered online is secure and offers a very high level of certainty, confidence and availability.

Not all of these services will be delivered from a fixed connection, but rather a mix of fixed and mobile. In this context, fixed network providers are ideally positioned to address these future and growing needs: while expanding the fiber to the home footprint to connect more residential and enterprise customers, they can also support more mobile broadband users.

For this, operators in the MEA region are looking for availability of cost-effective and geographically widespread mobile backhaul solutions.

National broadband targets are extremely ambitious. To help realize these, fixed networks have become the backbone of today's gigabit societies, capable of delivering faster speeds, more capacity and better flexibility than mobile networks do. As a result, fixed operators are expanding and upgrading their fiber to the home (FTTH) networks with technologies such as XGS-PON, providing them with a multi-service transport network that effectively eliminates the need to create parallel and dedicated networks for backhaul. With a footprint that often matches the mobile operators' cell densification strategy, FTTH networks are already at their most dense in the urban areas where the 5G wireless expansion will be needed the most.

When networks collide
The promise of 5G has many in the industry talking. However, when it comes to the technology, no one knows what it will ultimately look like, still very much in the infancy stage of development. What we do know is that it will make use of higher frequency bands (in the cmWave & mmWave spectrum) to deliver unprecedented amounts of capacity. We also know that 5G will require up to ten times more radio cells than in today's 3G/4G mobile networks.

In essence, the promise of 5G will largely be dependent on an operator's ability to deliver the capacity, latency and scale required by the densification of today's mobile networks. Existing fixed networks can deliver this and are already in place via existing FTTH strategies. Converging fixed and mobile services on a single access platform provides greater operational flexibility, simpler network design and opens new markets for operators.

This convergence creates new opportunities for all players: wholesale providers, converged operators, mobile virtual network operators and mobile-only operators. The boundaries are blurring and fixed and mobile networks are now more complementary than they ever were competitive. Operators who succeed in making greater use of fixed networks will improve the return on their investments and gain significant cost advantages. 

Paving the way for 5G
As we have already seen from the discussion taking place in the industry, some may question whether fixed networks have the capability to be a one-stop shop for operators' gigabit broadband and 5G. The most widely deployed FTTH technology today is GPON, but as mobile networks move into the 5G era, a quick and cost-effective upgrade to next generation PON technology will enable operators to support the significant increases in devices and bandwidth that 5G will bring.

Nokia's universal NG-PON solution provides the capacity (10 Gb/s and higher) and quality of service in a far more reliable and economical way than current mobile backhaul alternatives. And the flexibility of universal NG-PON makes it possible to scale the network and extend beyond backhaul with 5G-ready transport options for fronthaul. Next generation PON solutions such as XGS and TWDM offer unparalleled scalability allowing operators to add wavelengths gradually as the need for more bandwidth grows.

When it comes to mobile connectivity, XGS-PON shows four times more upstream bandwidth than XG-PON1, demonstrating how the technology is especially suited for 5G, where it can be used for mobile backhaul as well as the aggregation of remote access node traffic. XGS-PON can also deliver the Gigabit peak throughputs and higher symmetric bandwidth required to support 5G backhaul in the future, enabling the operator to quickly deliver new gigabit services to their subscribers on top of existing GPON services. This flexibility was key for operators such as du and Telefonica who both are trialing Nokia's XGS-PON technology to address growing residential demand for gigabit services while readying the network for the 5G era.  

In a nutshell, however you look at it, the fixed network is not only here to stay; it is going to remain at the very nerve center of what people are calling the next industrial revolution.

By Mohamed Salama - Head of Fixed Networks, Middle East & Africa

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