4G, Fibre, or Copper: Which Will You Be Using Next Year?

31-05-2018 | By Christian Cawley

It's largely recognized that copper has had its day as a communications medium. Where once it was vital for telephonic connectivity, since the age of mass internet, its limits have become all too obvious.

Fortunately, there is no need to worry. Fibre broadband is on the march, and there's 4G for mobile internet. Copper wires are barely needed these days, and in the UK, BT has already set a date for the switch to fibre for voice, and the transition to IP telephony.

Within a few years, businesses across the UK will be using fibre broadband, vast volumes of data streaking through miles of fibre optic cable in the blink of an eye. But is the roll-out of fibre being overtaken by 4G and its successor, 5G?

Goodbye, Telephone Exchanges

Switching to fibre means BT will be closing the public switched telephone network (PSTN), and with the switch comes the closure of telephone exchanges, where miles of copper have been used since the mass adoption of telephones in the 1970s.

By 2025, 95% of UK customers will be upgraded from the old analogue service (in reality, part digital since the 1990s) to the wholly digital service. Copper is yesterday's mass communication medium, as fibre takes over and becomes the primary medium for everything. With the translation of every piece of communication and consumable media to data, so it replaces voice completely.

Interestingly, the UK is behind the game in migrating voice calls to IP calls. In the European Union alone, Germany and Sweden have already started.

The Fibre Rollout

Switching to fibre is good for everyone, businesses and grandparents alike. With an increasing amount of TV and movies enjoyed over the internet, domestic users are already lapping up increased speeds and bandwidth. Meanwhile, SMEs and corporations are able to embrace improved communications between sites, with secure online collaboration, remote access, video calls, and more.

But the fibre rollout so far has only succeeded for metropolitan and urban areas. Towns, villages, and remote properties (from where businesses regularly operate, whether agriculture or aerodromes), have missed out on fast internet for two decades, and the current rollout of high speed internet via fibre cables shows little sign of changing this state of affairs.

Fibre-optic cable in a Telstra pit.jpg

Multi-mode optical fiber in an underground service pit By Bidgee - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5 au, Link

Despite the billions being pumped into broadband delivery around the UK, the likelihood of these rural areas (where 5% of the UK's population reside) receiving anywhere near the 24mbit/sec minimum (closer to 2mbit/sec for many) via fibre seems small.

Where Mobile Internet Comes In

Anyone who has spent any time in the British countryside -- whether the Yorkshire Dales, the Brecon Beacons, or the Scottish Highlands -- will know how utterly impossible it is to get anything approaching a reliable mobile signal. Despite years of promises, huge swathes of the UK remain without mobile internet.

Clearly more masts are required. The past couple of years has seen various inspired solutions to this potential issue, such as converting church spires into mobile masts. Rural broadband schemes and partnerships have been established by many small businesses, and the UK government is trialling alternative technology. Among these are satellite broadband, and potentially expensive Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) broadband.

But why bother with digging up rural roads when 5G is on the horizon? The solution to the UK's rural broadband issue is the same as its rural mobile network problem…

5G internet will deliver anything above 1000mbit/sec, perhaps even as high as an immense 10000 mbit/sec. For businesses of all shapes and sizes across the UK, this is a significant improvement over the current 76mbit/sec being offered by telecommunications companies.

With no expensive rural cabling, better flexibility, and superior speeds, 5G is surely the answer to every broadband internet requirement in the UK.

Time to Hold Out for 5G?

While the British government pushes on with its fibre rollout, there's no stopping it. Although you can refuse to connect, it's doubtful it would make any significant business sense unless there is a specific geographic reason.

It's one of those frustrating facts of technology that a faster solution will arrive soon after the upgrade has completed. Fibre will be arriving several years too late for most, but it will at least be available as a backup solution, and perhaps a media delivery option, for years to come. 5G might just be more suited to everyday internet and mobile activity, but it will take the right amount of vision to deliver it in a way that works for every household and business.


Read More: Data transmission boosted by (FSO) free space optics

By Christian Cawley

Christian Cawley is a freelance technology writer, with a background in healthcare and financial services industries. He writes extensively online, and contributes to print periodicals and specials.