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access network

What is an access network?

Access networks are the communication networks that connect end-user devices, such as computers, smartphones and tablets, to a wide area network (WAN), such as the internet. Access networks provide the connection to business services, including cloud-based storage, video conferencing and software-as-a-service platforms. These services are only accessible through reliable and high-speed connections, making the access network an essential component of modern enterprise infrastructure. Similarly, consumers rely on access networks for broadband internet access, voice over IP (VoIP), cable television, video streaming and mobile device connectivity.

Access networks may be wired, wireless or a combination of both. Wired access networks use cables such as copper wires or fiber optics that run through the ground or along power lines, while wireless access networks use radio waves or microwaves. Hybrid access networks combine both wired and wireless technologies for increased reliability and speed.

Telecommunications companies and internet service providers (ISPs) usually own access networks and invest significant resources to deploy and maintain them. To meet the growing demand for online and cloud-based services, these companies must frequently upgrade and expand their infrastructure, both for access networks and the core network, which connects one provider to another.

In some cases, businesses or municipalities may choose to build their own access networks. This is often done in areas where existing telecommunications infrastructure is insufficient or unavailable, or when a business requires greater control over network performance and security or purpose-built infrastructure to meet specific needs. For municipalities, a private network can provide its own internet access to residents and can support smart city applications and services.

Why access networks are important

Access networks are a key component of modern telecommunications technology. They facilitate the rapid transfer of data and reliable, cost-effective communication. With access networks, businesses can take advantage of high-speed data transfers, as well as secure voice and video conferencing applications over short or long distances. Access networks reduce costs associated with long-distance communications due to their ability to handle large amounts of traffic simultaneously. They also make it easier for businesses to expand their reach globally through fiber optics or satellite links to consume or deliver various online services.

History of access networks

Since the early 1990s, access networks evolved from dial-up over telephone lines to a hybrid of digital subscriber line (DSL), cable modem and fiber-optic technologies. This transition resulted from the proliferation of the internet and the need for faster speeds and more reliable connections.

Initially, dial-up was the only option available to customers for connecting to their service providers. Service was generally slow and could be unreliable. DSL technology changed this by providing much faster speeds than regular telephone lines. DSL adoption spread in the late 1990s when its cost became comparable to dial-up. Cable modem technology followed shortly after, allowing customers to use existing coaxial cable TV lines for fast internet access.

As businesses needed higher-speed data transfers over longer distances than those provided by DSL or cable modem technologies, fiber-optic networks emerged as an efficient option. Today's access networks often combine these connections into one system that can switch between network infrastructure types and segments depending on demand, congestion or location.

How does an access network work?

Users need a modem, router or switch before they can connect to an ISP. This device communicates with the ISP's server via various network protocols and turns on the connection. Depending on a user's location and type of device, they can choose from a variety of connection technologies, including DSL, Ethernet, Wi-Fi or 5G.

Once connected to an access network, data is sent across multiple devices within it using internal routing protocols such as Internet Protocol (IP). This allows all devices on the same network to communicate with each other without having to go through external routers or switches. Access networks also provide features such as quality of service (QoS) to help improve network performance by prioritizing traffic based on its importance.

Types of access networks

Businesses and consumers can take advantage of a wide range of access networks options. Understanding the differences between these types of networks is helpful in selecting the right one for your business.

Wired access networks

Wired access networks provide a reliable and secure connection to the internet for both residential and commercial users. Common wired network options include DSL, cable, fiber optics and Ethernet. These use physical cables to connect devices and typically exist in fixed locations.

  • DSL is a type of broadband connection that uses existing copper telephone lines to transmit data. It allows customers to access high-speed internet services with faster download speeds than dial-up connections and is widely available. Cable networks using DSL are also popular in many areas, providing high speeds over coaxial cables connected through local providers.
  • Fiber-optic networks are increasingly more prevalent because they offer even higher speeds, lower latency and more reliable connections than traditional copper cables. Fiber-optic networks use light pulses transmitted through glass or plastic fibers, which produce high bandwidth and transmit speeds. The fibers are also more resistant to interference and signal degradation, making them better suited for sending data over long distances without losing signal quality.
  • Ethernet is the most common type of wired network used today for local area networks (LANs). Designed for fast data transmission between computers on the same network, Ethernet can transfer data at up to 10 Gbps.

Service providers offering wired access services typically include telephone companies, cable television companies, ISPs, universities and research organizations running their own campus networks, and smart grid systems using power line communication technology. Mobile operators may also use wired infrastructure, such as fiber-optic backhaul connections, to connect their cellular towers to the core network.

Wired access can have advantages over wireless technologies. It provides a physical connection that improves security, delivers stable connections with minimal interference and offers higher bandwidths. It also can cost less than wireless technologies that charge monthly fees for services like 5G mobile broadband. However, wired access networks have the disadvantage of being fixed in locations where there is existing infrastructure in place.

Wireless access networks

Wireless access networks provide internet access without the need for physical cables or wires. They have increased in popularity because they can be installed and maintained with much less infrastructure and can provide coverage in a wide range of locations and environmental conditions.

The most common types of wireless access networks include Wi-Fi, cellular and satellite networks.

  • Wi-Fi is the most widely used type of wireless network. LANs in homes, offices and public spaces such as airports and coffee shops typically run over Wi-Fi. It works by connecting devices to a wireless access point that transmits data over radio frequencies to other devices within range.
  • Cellular networks use towers to transmit data over a large area and are often used in remote places where it would be difficult to set up wired networks. This makes them useful for mobile applications such as voice calling, streaming media or internet connections in vehicles.
  • Satellite networks use satellites orbiting the Earth to provide internet access over a very large geographic area. These are more expensive than other types of wireless networks but offer very high speeds over long distances with high reliability.

Hybrid access networks

Hybrid access networks combine two or more different access technologies, allowing ISPs to expand and improve network coverage. For example, a hybrid access network might connect fiber-optic cables with Wi-Fi or cellular networks to provide a consistent user experience and increase the availability and reliability of services.

Hybrid access networks offer several advantages. They take advantage of the strengths of multiple technologies to provide wider coverage and higher availability than a single-technology network. A hybrid access network often has higher network capacity and can handle more traffic, which is important in areas with high user density or data-intensive applications. Redundancy is built into a hybrid network, as it automatically switches between different technologies in case of network failures or congestion. Hybrid access networks can also be more cost-effective than building separate networks for each access technology. By combining existing infrastructure and technologies, service providers can reduce capital and operational expenditures while providing comparable services to their customers.

Advancements in access network technology

Access network technology continues to advance due to growing demand for high-speed connectivity and the emerging technologies and applications that demand it, as well as competitive pressures and regulatory requirements for ISPs. New technologies and applications, such as 5G, virtual reality and the internet of things (IoT), require innovation in access networks to support high-bandwidth and low-latency connections.

Telecommunications companies and internet service providers are facing increasing competition from new market entrants and alternative technologies. To stay competitive, providers must invest in access network technology to improve their services and meet changing customer needs. Government policies and regulations, such as those aimed at expanding broadband access and promoting network neutrality, are also prompting development efforts.

Some of the latest advancements in access networks include the following:

  • Fiber to the home (FTTH) provides internet access using fiber-optic cables directly connected to residences and buildings. FTTH can deliver much faster internet speeds than traditional copper cables while providing improved reliability and less susceptibility to interference. FTTH deployments increased significantly in recent years, and the trend is expected to continue due to factors such as remote work and education and interest in streaming media and online gaming.
  • 5G cellular technology aims to provide faster and more reliable connectivity to mobile devices. 5G offers higher data transfer speeds and lower latency than previous generations, allowing for immersive and responsive experiences. 5G networks are under deployment globally, and many countries have launched commercial 5G services. Providers are already working on 6G internet technology, but availability is not expected until 2030.
  • Software-defined networking (SDN) is a network architecture that separates the control plane from the data plane in order to enable more efficient and flexible network management. With SDN, network administrators can centrally manage and configure the network through software, allowing for greater automation and easier integration with other systems.
  • IoT refers to the interconnectivity of physical devices, vehicles, buildings and other objects that are embedded with sensors, software and network connectivity. IoT networks enable real-time data collection and analysis, which can be used to optimize business processes, improve efficiency and enhance user experiences.
  • Edge computing brings computing resources closer to the edge of the network, where data is generated and consumed. By processing data locally, rather than sending it to a centralized data center, edge computing reduces latency and improves performance for applications that require real-time processing.

Overall, these advancements help provide faster, more reliable and more efficient communication networks, which support the growing demand for data-intensive applications and services.

Editor's note: The publisher has used AI technology in the creation of this content. The final text has been reviewed, fact-checked, edited and approved by TechTarget editors.

This was last updated in May 2023

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