Can new bidirectional technology help unlock fiber's full potential?

Service providers need a cost-effective way to meet the capacity and availability demands of 5G and remote working. Could bidirectional technology be the answer?
Arthur Cole
Arrow markings on road

Fiber’s bandwidth advantage over copper is well-known, and in this age of accelerating digital communications it has become the go-to solution for end-to-end network infrastructure.

But this abundance of carrying capacity should not be squandered. As data volumes increase, the cost of fiber transport can quickly reach unsustainable levels, particularly as the digital economy forces the business world to cut their margins to the bone. Going forward, the development of fiber infrastructure around the world will evolve beyond just speed and scale to include two equally important objectives: increased availability and more efficient consumption.

Demand spike

The pandemic put the need for greater efficiency in stark relief. As Fierce Telecom noted recently, the sudden upsurge in demand driven by lockdowns and the ensuing work-from-home movement caused traffic to spike, particularly on the uplink as legions of knowledge workers turned to teleconferencing and meeting platforms to connect with colleagues. Even when things do get “back to normal”, we shouldn’t expect demand to drop back to pre-pandemic levels now that the world has discovered the advantages of working, shopping and communicating online.

Perhaps the most effective way to accommodate these changing usage patterns is to expand the ability for fiber to carry two-way traffic. Bidirectional transmission on a single fiber is now commercially viable without sacrificing data rates, distance or latency, all while maintaining cost parity – or even a cost advantage – with single-directional solutions. Not only does this satisfy the requirements of home-based knowledge work, it also enables far greater fronthaul and backhaul connectivity for emerging 5G wireless infrastructure as well.

A recent survey by Heavy Reading, in fact, showed that 72% of communications service providers rated bidirectional optics as either important or critical to their fiber-to-the-tower strategies. The industry is already looking at a crunch in midband 5G traffic, which is expected to add another 200 to 300Gbit/s of fronthaul demand on top of existing 4G loads. With bidirectional solutions, providers say they can meet these demands with about half the upfront costs of traditional dual-fiber solutions.

With bidirectional solutions, providers can meet demand with about half the upfront costs of traditional dual-fiber solutions.
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Still, such a change to entrenched fiber networks will require widespread replacement of legacy mux technology, and this is best accomplished by building this capability onto the same SFP form factor that currently populates most networks. As well, it must support 10GbE connectivity at a minimum, given the relentless demand for increasingly data-heavy services and workloads.

Equally important to emerging fiber networks is the need for precise timing and synchronization, which are far more demanding in 5G than 4G. With a single-fiber solution using integrated bidirectional transceivers, propagation delay and other artifacts can be kept in check to a greater degree than in dual-fiber environments, without the need for external hardware. This ensures a much higher level of symmetric latency and effectively eliminates the timing discrepancies that affect discrete, one-directional infrastructure.

The fiber industry is living proof that bigger, better, faster and broader is not the endgame when it comes to preparing for the next generation of digital services. Efficiency will be a key factor going forward, regardless of how scalable the resource. 

As the world becomes more dependent on its digital footprint, those who can meet consumers’ demands at the lowest price point will reap the rewards, while those who cannot will be swept aside. In this world, the less fiber you consume, the better you can compete on both price and service capability – and the more room you have to grow as business accelerates.

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