Though once mostly the purview of fixed-access broadband providers, mobile operators are now equally interested in fiber as a regular component of their business diet.
While 5G certainly leads the list of reasons for such investment, there are other complementary reasons why wireless providers are deploying fiber at a rapid clip around the world.
Unlimited data and other margin-crushing competitive pricing deals make revenue growth challenging, especially as consumers ramp up their data usage. Providers, therefore, are on the continuous lookout for investment opportunities that cut costs or increase revenue.
These include areas like 5G, Internet of Things, cross-industry partnerships in vertical markets such as telehealth and smart cities, and an explosion of possibilities generated by these technologies as they evolve. Wearables, connected cars and smart agriculture: These all demand wireless connectivity, since they hardly can be hard-wired into a broadband cable.
Consider the sheer volume of data each business case could generate. A critically ill patient who dons a wearable device to monitor their vital statistics; a self-driving delivery truck that drops off fresh produce to neighborhood restaurants and markets, and a smart farm that uses a stable of self-driving tractors, robotic fruit-picking machines and only a few workers -- they all have in common the creation of gigabits of daily data. These use cases also require the ability to track and analyze this information to enhance operations, find new opportunities and locate even more ways to use technology and improve services -- whether that's making a patient more comfortable or bringing food from farm to table.
To do this, mobile carriers recognize they must deploy fiber backhaul and fronthaul for 5G. Indeed, the success of next-gen mobile networks depends on heavy investment in the core fiber backhaul network that will support this data growth. Between 2016 and 2021, there will be a "fourfold increase in mobile data traffic" in the United States, reported Deloitte, requiring an investment of between $130 billion and $150 billion over that timeframe to support broadband competition, rural markets and wireless densification.
"Carriers will deploy many more small cells, 'home spots' and hotspots in higher frequency bands, with a coverage radius measured in meters rather than kilometers," according to Deloitte's report, "The Need for Deep Fiber." "Without more deep fiber, carriers will be unable to support the projected 4x increase in mobile data traffic between 2016 and 2021.
More wireless operators use fiber as a conduit for other business cases like high-speed video.
"Many telecom carriers are looking to potentially enter the media space through M&A deals, partnerships, alliances and the like. Mobile content and video are some of most significant consumer use cases for 5G, so expansion into the content arena is only natural for carriers seeking growth," wrote Craig Wigginton, global telecommunications sector leader for Deloitte,
in a March 2018 report: "Telecommunications Industry Outlook 2018."
"While there may be different approaches to media (for example, by buying major media houses, or by purchasing smaller-scale TV distribution technology with the intent to scale it), the objectives are the same: the ability to deliver content to any screen through wireless distribution," he added.
By the numbers
Skim through a few mobile operators' financial reports and it's apparent these providers are are shelling out real money to deploy fiber for their services and subscribers.
In its first half of 2018, Orange increased capex 3.7%, to €3.37 billion and revenue of €20.3 billion.
"In France, the growth in capex was mainly the result of our ambition to maintain the best networks, accelerating in 4G, now covering 98% of the population and in fiber, with a total of 10.3 million connectable homes. This is a 30% increase year-on-year," Stéphane Richard, chairman and CEO told analysts, according to the Seeking Alpha transcript. "The increase in capex in the 1st quarter of 2018 is in line with the €7.4 billion forecast for the year and reflects our ongoing investments in 4G and very high-speed broadband fixed services."
Orange credited its strong financial picture to the mix of fiber-to-the-home, often in partnership with a cable operator such as Altice in France, as well as converged customers who use both its fixed and wireless services of 4G and fiber-based broadband, said Richard.
For its part, Vodafone now claims it's the "fastest, biggest growing fixed line provider in Europe," said Vittorio Colao, Group CEO and executive director, during the mobile carrier's Q4 earnings call in May 2018.
That does not include the Gigabit Investment Plan in Germany, set to begin later this year, he noted.
— Alison Diana, Editor, Broadband World News. Follow us on Twitter or @alisoncdiana.