Why do we need fibre? The Fibre to the Home (FTTH) Council attempted to provide an answer at its annual conference last week.

Alongside the usual discussions about the advantages of the technology, another message was placed front-and-centre.

“The world is going wireless,” said FTTH Council President Ronan Kelly in his keynote speech. “However, [the wireless connections] all need to get onto a fixed infrastructure as quickly as they can.”

He added: “We will not get 5G unless we have fibre available.”

In an interview with European Communications FTTH Council Director General Erzsébet Fitori expanded on this theme: “The next generation of mobile networks will be basically more wired than they are today. 5G requires that you take fibre to the antenna.”

She said that the kinds of applications that will run on 5G will require not just high bandwidth but low latency, requiring fibre to be rolled out even further.

An example is security features on connected cars, which will require “millisecond latency.”

“In order to have that, you will not connect a wire to the car but the wire will have to be alongside the road. That is how the wireless connection will be able to deliver the low latency,” Fitori said.

Nokia’s Eric Festraets, Director of Business and Network Strategy, wryly commented that there is a chance for fibre to “jump on the [5G] wagon.”

It marks a shift by the Council, whose central message in previous years has almost entirely been based on the supremacy of fibre as a technology in its own right.

Former President Edgar Aker spent most of his 2016 keynote arguing for why operators and developers directly required fibre for new applications, with a fairly brief outline of how fibre would provide the backhaul for 5G featuring near the end of the talk.

The 5G focus comes as the latest FTTH figures compiled by France-based think tank IDATE replicate a similar story to previous years.

Fibre adoption is growing but the penetration rate stands at just 9.4 percent across the entire EU.

There is a long road ahead, with Council projections suggesting it will cost €156 billion to make FTTH technology reach 100 percent of homes in Europe.

According to European Communications’ latest fibre broadband survey, getting a return on investment remains the biggest obstacle operators face in deploying FTTx tech.

There is optimism that things will change, with 61 percent of survey respondents saying they expect the European Commission’s Electronic Communications Code, which aims to cut red tape to boost investments and sets new minimum access speeds, to increase deployment.

But Fitori says the Council’s message is still not being heard amongst policymakers.

She argues that some politicians are not well informed enough about the services dependent on fibre that will emerge in the short term and the fact that it’s not just about speeds.

“There isn’t enough understanding of fibre being an enabler infrastructure for several future technologies and services,” Fitori said. “It may be that almost all of our devices are connected with wireless but all of that traffic will be going onto a wire.”

Whether the Council’s move to hitch FTTH to 5G will push operators and policy-makers into making that investment case more loudly remains.

Arguably, a bit more hype will do little harm to fibre’s future.

But there are warnings to the contrary.

Speaking at a panel during the conference, Ofcom CTO Steve Unger said that 5G has “attracted hype” and that he was worried that some of the things said about the technology may not happen.

Then there is a new study unveiled by Telefónica's UK brand O2 last week, ‘Tech-onomy: Measuring the impact of 5G on the nation’s economic growth’, which argued that the benefits of a national 5G infrastructure will outstrip the economic benefits of fibre fixed broadband by 2026.

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