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Broadband Communities Summit Reprises Age-Old Question About Fiber Versus Wireless Networks

Jericho Casper

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Screenshot of participants in Broadband Communities Virtual Summit

September 29, 2020 — A panel of experts with experience deploying both fiber and wireless networks weighed the pros and cons of each technology during a virtual conversation on Thursday streamed as part of the Broadband Communities 2020 Virtual Summit.

The panelists recognized that there are benefits and shortcomings to each technology. Both fiber and wireless networks will be required to close the digital divide, they said.

“Using the right tool for the job” was a common refrain during the discussion.

“Fiber needs wireless and wireless needs fiber,” said Nathan Stooke, CEO of the Wisper wireless internet service provider in Illinois. He said it may not be beneficial to spend a great deal of time on the age-old question of “fiber or wireless,” although the panel still engaged in a lively discussion on the topic.

Mike McGannon, vice president at Engineering Associates, laid out the case for fiber to the home deployments. He said “fiber requires high capital expenditure and is slow to deploy, but has a low operational expense and holds its value over time. The payback on a fiber network is easily realized in five to ten years.”

McGannon noted that fiber networks are “more likely to offer symmetrical speeds and provide higher latency, which is required by smart cities and internet of things technology.”

“Fiber is more resilient when faced with environmental disruptions than wireless networks,” he said, adding that fiber networks are “estimated to have a 30 to 50-year lifespan, which no other technology can compete with.”

In defense of wireless networks, Brett Glass, founder of Lariat.net, retorted that “wireless has a low capex and is super-fast to deploy.” Yet he also noted the downsides to maintaining wireless networks, saying “they have higher operational expenses and offer speeds nowhere near what fiber is capable of offering.”

But Glass maintained that in some places, and during some points in time, wireless remains the better option.

He detailed a build conducted in a town where only five people lived per square mile in North Dakota, saying it was the financially the smartest option.

Glass further urged that wireless networks have been crucial during the coronavirus pandemic as many have rushed to expand their networks to serve the unserved, as quickly as possible.

While wireless networks allow for broadband to reach consumers sooner, “the rising demand for fiber” and symmetrical upload and download speeds cannot be ignored, said Carroll Faulkner, president and CEO of Digital Fields. Faulkner upheld that “the competitive landscape is trending towards fiber.”

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