Fiber Optics For Wireless
Today's users of mobile devices depend on wireless connections for their voice, data and even video communications. Even homes and businesses may depend on wireless, especially those who are not in urban or suburban areas served by FTTH (fiber to the home) or FTTC (fiber to the curb.) Some of us in the business now use the term FTTW for fiber to wireless, since wireless depends on fiber for the communications backbone and increasingly the connection to the wireless antennas, no matter what kinds of wireless we use.
Wireless is not entirely wireless. The easiest way to understand wireless is to think of it as a link that replaces the cable that connects your cellular or wireless phone to the phone system or the patchcord that connects your computer or other portable Internet device to the network. To understand wireless, it is necessary to look at several different and unique types of wireless systems, including cellular wireless phones, wireless in premises cabling, municipal or private wireless links and even some of the short distance links used for computer peripheral connections.
Cellular phone systems have grown to dominate the telecommunications marketplace. Countries that have had extensive landline phone systems for a century now already have more cell phones than land lines. Countries that had not developed landline-based phone networks skipped them entirely and went directly to cellular wireless where the adoption rates have been extremely high.
While cellular wireless started out as a voice network, text messaging became very popular, eclipsing voice for most users. Smart phones brought the Internet to the phone, and soon data became the largest traffic generator for cellular networks. In the first 3-1/2 years of the iPhone, AT&T claimed their data traffic grew 8000% - 80 times! Now video is coming to these same devices, creating an even faster growth rate for cellular network traffic.
To accomodate this traffic level, wireless needs new systems with more radio frequency spectrum. Current systems (CDMA for some systems, in the US, GSM for the rest of the US and the world) are evolving into new generations of systems (4G, LTE) that have more data bandwidth. Almost from the beginning, cellular towers were connected to the telco networks over fiber optics, just like any other connection. Wireless towers have small huts at the base that connect to fiber backbones that connect towers to the various phone companies. As traffic grows, towers need more antennas. Instead of 3-4 antennas on a tower, now one sees dozens, so towers and buildings now look like this:
or on buildings
All these antennas on a tower or the side of a building have created another problem. In the past, each antenna has been connected by a large (2", 50mm) coax cable that carries both signal and power to the antenna. But with all these antennas, the size, weight and even wind resistance of these cables has become a big problem. These towers which have been upgraded to add many antennas show the problem with these large coax cables.
This is another application where copper cable is being replaced by optical fiber. One small fiber cable can replace all those coax cables and a separate power cable is used for the drivers on the antennas. These applications use mostly prefab cable assemblies since making terminations on top of the tower is difficult to say the least. Some applications use prefab at the top of the tower and conventional termination at the base. Many of these systems use multimode fiber because the distances are so short and the transceivers are much less expensive for MM fiber.
Below are photos from Corning showing a remote antenna head end and antenna and the fiber terminal serving the antennas. Note the use of a prefab cable system at the top of the tower, making installation much easier. Some installations use a composite cable that includes both fiber and power conductors so only one cable need be installed up the tower.
Photos courtesy of Corning.
Many cell towers are independently owned and space for antennas is rented to the service providers. Installation of fiber to the towers and fiber up to the antennas is generally done by independent contractors who specialize in this kind of work.
Wireless In Premises Networks
Wireless in the corporate premises network is WiFi (IEEE 802.11), the common network built into most laptop or netbook computers, tablets, VoIP phones, many cellular phones and other portable devices. The
wireless “antenna” in the network, called an "access point," is a lot more than that. It’s a radio transceiver and network adapter that connects to your laptop to allow access to the network, with some logic that implements part of the network protocols allowing access to the network. The transceiver in the antenna has limited power as does the transceiver in the portable device, so the distance from the antenna to your laptop is limited. Connection between devices and antennas can be affected by metal in a building that reflects or attenuates signals. Signals can even be absorbed by people in the building. A typical office building may need 4-8 antennas per floor to get consistent connections throughout the area.
The antenna is connected to the network just like a PC, using UTP or fiber optic cable to a local switch which connects it into the network backbone. Not only does the wireless antenna require a network cable to connect to the network, but it needs power – uninterruptible power, just like any network hub or switch – to operate.
So replacing a wired network with a wireless one doesn’t mean you don’t need cabling; you may in fact need more when you consider the power needs of the antennas. Any advantage of a wireless network is not in the installation, it’s in the flexibility of users roaming but maintaining connections.
Bluetooth (IEEE 802.15) is a limited distance network mainly used for consumer devices. It has been used to connect a wireless printer or mouse to a PC, wireless headsets to cell phones and stereos, cell phones to cars for hands-free operation, digital cameras to printers, etc. In terms of installation, Bluetooth is built-in to many devices and adapters can be plugged into USB ports or added as cards to PCs, not installed as access points like WiFi, so it is not generally of interest for cabling installers.
More on wireless in premises systems including wireless network standards .
Metropolitan wireless systems have had a rocky road. Initially, they were proposed as an inexpensive way of offering broadband to everyone, but providing support and competitive issues with other broadband suppliers ended most of these early trials. Now cities often install WiFi for public service use and free Internet access in parks and plazas, like these examples. The distances these access points are from the network connections require fiber, usually SM fiber available in the metro fiber network used for other communications.
Downtown Santa Monica California, where you can see two separate systems, one public, one private for city services, on one pole.
Istanbul, Turkey installed metro WiFi for visitors as the European City of the Year.
WiMAX is a further development of wireless network technology that expands the data capacity of wireless to ~ 100 Mb/s and it’s distance capability to several miles. Unlike WiFi which was primarily a short distance network aimed at private networks, WiMAX appears aimed at communications carriers who could use it in place of landline networks, substituting WiMAX, for example, for Fiber To The Home, in areas needing upgrades of their networks or using it to allow notebook PC or PDA roaming in a metropolitan area.
"Super WiFi" On Fiber
Bringing broadband to the rural areas of the US or any large country with sparse population can be very expensive. The US has a plan, however, that may make it more affordable. "Super WiFi" is not your usual WiFi. It is using WiFi protocols but broadcasting on frequencies of unused TV channels, called "white space." The FCC is ready to open up new frequencies to broadband to allow delivering broadband Internet and phone to rural areas where cabling is too expensive.
An example of a super Wi-Fi antenna: Altai
Super WiFi works at a lower frequency than either regular WiFi or cellular systems so it has more reach into areas that are too rugged for most wireless systems. Usage in more urban areas may be a problem however, if there are too many broadcast TV stations which can interfere with Super WiFi signals (and vice versa.) These antennas will also require fiber to connect into the network.
More in MIT Technology Review And the US Government Announcement.