Telecom network strategists have been debating the feasibility of copper, optical fiber and mixed-media access networks for a few decades. But a couple of developments show how “stale” many of those arguments have become.

For starters, with the rise of hybrid fiber coax as the leading platform for consumer Internet access in the United States, and the leader in gigabit access availability, “sustainable bandwidth,” not access media, is the issue.

It is becoming irrelevant what the access medium happens to be. What consumers are buying is fast Internet access, that can be supplied in a growing number of ways.

Also, rapid advances in fixed wireless and mobile platforms will make wireless a viable and sustainable way to supply huge amounts of bandwidth to fixed locations.

Ronan Dunne, O2 UK’s former CEO and new Verizon Wireless president, thinks the arguments about “fiber versus copper” are stale.

“My sense is that there’s a more forward looking context for the delivery of regulation and policy there, which is adopting the notion of a digitally-led mobile first,” Dunne said.

“In the longer-term, we will forget this stupid debate about rolling out fiber cables,” he said.

Talking about tests of pre-5G mobile network platforms, multi-gigabit speeds with ultra-low latency have been seen, T-Mobile US says.

“We’ve already demonstrated speeds up to 12 Gbps with latency under two milliseconds, 8×8 MIMO and four simultaneous 4k video streams,” says Neville Ray, T-Mobile US CTO, reporting on tests of Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung platforms.

Granted, commercial deployments tend to operate differently from “lab tests” or “field trials.” But the 5G promise of gigabit and multi-gigabit speeds appears to be grounded in reality.

Aside from what 5G at such speeds and latency will mean for mobile apps, it clearly will be possible to consider full fixed network substitution, if spectrum costs are low enough. The reason is simply that fixed network data consumption tends to be an order of magnitude or more higher than typical mobile usage.

So real substitution by “mobile” networks of the fixed networks not only must deliver equivalent bandwidth, but also price-per-gigabyte that is comparable to fixed network prices. Low or “free” spectrum costs would help.

And add AT&T to the list of big, influential firms now seriously exploring the use of new types of fixed wireless platforms for gigabit communications in the access network. That list includes Google and Facebook, for example.

Combined with the dominant role of cable TV networks in the access network, and the upgrades to gigabit speeds, serious questions can be asked about whether fiber to the home will continue to be viewed as the “best” way to deliver gigabit Internet access and other services to consumers.

AT&T is working on “AirGig,” a method for combining fixed wireless with power line transmission for communications, without building towers, laying cables or acquiring new spectrum.

All three of those attributes have the potential to dramatically lower the cost of delivering gigabit services in the access network.

AT&T’s Project AirGig has several key advantages:

  • Easier to deploy than fiber
  • Uses license-free spectrum
  • No need to deploy towers, dig trenches or connect cables

The big point is that the proper discussion about access is bandwidth and coverage, not access media.