Japan lags in installing fiber-in-the-loop networks

Japan lags in installing fiber-in-the-loop networks


Fiber-optic networks have yet to make substantial inroads into Japan`s subscriber loop, despite the fact that long-distance networks are predominantly fiber. This shortcoming is significant in light of the Ministry of Posts & Telecommunications` (MPT) plan to cover 20% of Japan`s households with a fiber-optic network as far as the feeder-line point by the year 2000 and to blanket all households by 2010.

According to the latest MPT statistics, fiber implementation in the subscriber loop is less than 5% in terms of cable length and has been growing at a rate of approximately 1% each year since 1992. Meanwhile, the ministry and various industry groups are working to promote public awareness and a demand for fiber-based services through various multimedia projects using Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) technology.

The ministry explains that in terms of cable length, 55% of the entire trunk network consisted of fiber-optic cable as of fiscal year 1994, whereas only 4.7% of the subscriber network had fiber. In terms of total route length, however, 96% of the trunk network was fiber optic, but only 6.6% of the subscriber network was fiber (see figure). Installation of fiber-optic cable in the subscriber network is clearly lagging, observes an MPT spokesman. The rate of fiber-optic cable installations in the subscriber network is a mere 1.9%, whereas the corresponding rate for the new regional common carriers that install most of the trunk networks is 66%. Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Co. (NTT) operates the country`s existing telephone network, which incorporates metallic cable.

In connection with this fiber-optic network implementation, the MPT set up a special financing program in fiscal year 1995. In fiscal year 1996, this program provides 15-year financing at extremely low interest rates--2% to 2.5%. The total of the loans in fiscal year 1996 is 䂞 billion (US$389 million).

This program supports up to half of the amount invested by telecommunications carriers. So far, "demands for the loans have exceeded the allocated budget," says a ministry spokesman. He estimates that the combined investment of the telecommunications carriers in the fiber-optic subscriber network may total 𨗺 billion (US$3.4 billion) in fiscal year 1996. It is expected to range between 𨘘 billion and 𨙼 billion (US$3.7 billion to US$4.6 billion) annually after fiscal year 1997. Cumulative investment from 1996 through the year 2000 is projected to reach ٴ.5 trillion (US$23 billion).

Aerial cables less expensive

In Japan, laying communications cables underground is approximately 2 to 10 times more expensive than putting up aerial cables. Moreover, it represents an investment that is not directly connected to business earnings. For these reasons, the share of underground cables in the entire network remained at around 31%, about 2% for subscriber lines, in fiscal year 1995. The MPT plans to initiate tax incentives for additional underground construction; however, this is not one of its priorities.

The priority is to push ahead rapidly with the construction of the nationwide fiber-optic network to support the information and communications industry, which is predicted to be the country`s leading industrial sector in the next century.

Communications equipment production is the fastest-growing sector of the Japanese economy. According to figures announced June 30, production expanded 23.7% and surpassed ٵ trillion (US$27.52 billion) in fiscal year 1995. Transmission equipment production swelled 23.5% to 𨜂.5 billion (US$5.82 billion) and switch production expanded 26.4% to 𨜀.3 billion (US$5.80 billion). Meanwhile, exports declined for the third consecutive year to 𨛌.9 billion (US$5.33 billion). In particular, exports to the United States declined 27.4% to 𨕂.0 billion (US$1.71 billion). Imports from the United States surged 36.6% to 𨔙.3 billion (US$1.33 billion).

With an aim to supporting the communications industry, MPT is currently promoting two projects to develop advanced fiber applications: the Broadband Integrated Services Digital Network (Bisdn) Application Field Research Project and the New-generation Communications Network Pilot Project.

The Bisdn Application Field Research Project was launched in July 1994 by the Association of Bisdn Business with the participation of 200 organizations, including manufacturers, users and local autonomous bodies. Research is under way in 18 application projects, including multimedia shopping using electronic catalogs, electronic libraries and distance-learning systems. The practical experiments are scheduled to continue until 2004. Initiated in July 1994, the New-generation Communications Network Pilot Project involves the provision of video-on-demand, video phone, online computer game distribution and other services by means of fiber-optic cable to 300 households being monitored.

"Once the concrete vision of applications requiring fiber-optic networks becomes clear, carriers will focus their energies on implementing the necessary infrastructure," says an MPT spokesman.

Tax incentives

The MPT plans to implement tax incentives and other measures to support construction of ATM networks during 1996. The ministry is awaiting International Telecommunication Union standardization recommendations--scheduled for completion in 1996--on variable-bit-rate transmission and simple point-to-multipoint services.

Japanese industry is well-placed both domestically and internationally to take advantage of any push by the MPT to popularize ATM technology. With NTT`s emphasis on laser development, optical amplifiers and associated electronic integrated circuits for 10-Gbit/sec and higher backbone networks, Japanese manufacturers are ahead of the United States in terms of development and production skills, according to the Japan Technology Evaluation Center (Jtec) in Baltimore.

As for ATM switches used in local area networking, the two nations have an equal level of expertise, according to Jtec researchers. Hitachi, Fujitsu and NEC currently have a strong presence in ATM switches, while Oki, Toshiba Corp. and others are potential suppliers. Oki and Fujitsu are carrying out research on optical ATM switches, and Toshiba has developed a 10-Gbit/sec long-haul transmission system and a 64 ¥ 64 ATM switch that operates at 155 Mbits/sec.

Researchers at Toshiba have also developed a prototype large-scale integration switch for ATM. It attains a data exchange speed of 5 Gbits/sec with 8 input/8 output (633 Mbits/sec per port)--the fastest rate achieved as a single complementary metal oxide semiconductor chip.

Enabling technologies

Japan is aggressively developing all the enabling technologies, subsystems and systems for broadband telecommunications. These technologies include fiber-to-the-home, fiber-to-the-curb and hybrid fiber/coaxial-cable networks. Japanese electronics companies appear to have a long-term, evolutionary view, giving considerable weight to technologies that will make them most competitive in the twenty-first century. Similar, if not identical, products are being developed in parallel by multiple suppliers because of NTT`s coordinating influence on the market and because of directions in the United States for cable-TV network products.

Companies such as NEC and Fujitsu already have a strong presence in transmission systems in the United States, and other companies, such as Oki, Hitachi and Toshiba, appear to be strong contenders for future consideration.

Overseas sales of broadband fiber-based distribution systems designed for export--and not based on modifications of domestic systems--are becoming more important to Japan`s optoelectronics industry. q

Paul Mortensen writes from Japan.

More in Earnings Statements