on January 23rd, 2012

Many of us tolerate unbelievably bad ‘broadband’ in remote locations with so-called DSL. Very high speed fiber-to-the-kerb is only a dream. There is thus much animated discussion about the possibilities with the relatively new Long-Term Evolution (LTE) Wireless standard that is going to be the solution to all our problems. This particular standard promises download speeds of 100 Megabits/second and peak rates of up to 300Megabits/second. It is reckoned that this will challenge copper, coaxial and perhaps even optical fiber. Surely this means that that no telecommunications provider in their right mind is going to dig trenches and provide fiber any longer with this (wireless) elephant in the room.

What exactly is LTE - in a few words?
It comes from a 3G form of mobile telephony called GSM (Global System to Mobile Communications) although it is often (officially) referred to as a 4G technology. It uses two separate radio links – one for downloading from the cell tower and the other for uploading. The uplink tolerates a weak signal from the cell phones as it has gigantic antennas and powerful receivers.

So what exactly are the problems with Wireless systems such as LTE?
The problem is that the high throughput with wireless is only achievable with low congestion. Definitely not a problem for fiber optic which can achieve orders of magnitude greater throughputs because of the size of the physical pipe. When the number of wireless users in an area, exceed a tower’s capacity, the throughput drops off dramatically.

So, especially in densely populated areas, the available bandwidth while it is supposedly gigabits/second for a few users, rapidly reduces to a crawl, when the number of users exceeds the available slices of spectrum.

Finally, the cost per bit of wireless is dramatically more than copper or fiber. Well, for a typical installation (obviously not one remote user hundreds of kms away from the mobile tower). Some suggest, wireless is of the order of two orders of magnitude more expensive than landline.

So all in all – don’t discard the incredible possibilities offered by Fiber. Wireless is still a compromise. Naturally, if you don’t have a choice (you are located in a remote location, are a mobile user or don’t have any cable), you will have to live with wireless.

Note that FTTC (Fiber to the Corner) or FTTH (Fiber to the Home) has so much potential bandwidth that even a few fibers can easily give you huge bandwidth. Far more than LTE Wireless can ever hope for.
Thanks to the Economist for a tremendous set of articles on the topic.

Bear in mind in this rapidly developing area, as Donald R. Gannon remarks: Where facts are few, experts are many.

Yours in engineering learning


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