Finally FTTH blooms in Europe, but not everywhere

The number of fiber-to-the-home/building (FTTH/FTTB) connections in Europe is expected to double in the next five years, according to the latest market forecast commissioned by the FTTH Council Europe.

The number of fiber-to-the-home/building (FTTH/FTTB) connections in Europe is expected to double in the next five years, according to the latest market forecast commissioned by the FTTH Council Europe.

The industry could do with a bit of encouragement after budget cuts wiped out the promise of central European Union investment in broadband infrastructure (see “European Union slashes broadband funding” and “EU budget cuts to fragment European FTTH landscape”).

Research carried out by Heavy Reading puts the number of fiber subscribers at 16.2 million across continental Europe – including Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States – at the end of 2012. The region will see “steady but not spectacular” growth, reaching 41.4 million subscribers by the end of 2017, according to Graham Finnie, Heavy Reading’s chief analyst.

The FTTH/B market grew faster than expected in 2012, and Heavy Reading has upgraded its forecast accordingly. “If you’ve been coming to these events for a while, you’ll know that has never happened before,” said Finnie. In fact, Heavy Reading downgraded its forecast in previous years as operators failed to deliver fiber-optic broadband projects on schedule.

The upgrade is a result of strong progress in several territories, especially Russia, which added more subscribers in the last six months of 2012 than can be counted in the whole of the rest of Europe. Russia currently has 8.9 million fiber subscribers, a significant portion of the region’s total.

It is already becoming apparent who will be winners and losers in Europe’s fiber future. “Five years is not long if you are building fiber, so those countries that are behind will stay behind,” Finnie pointed out.

The winners include Lithuania and Andorra, which already have 100% availability of fiber access networks. The clear losers are Germany and the UK. Germany has 0.51% penetration of FTTH/B networks whilst in the UK just 0.06% of households subscribe to a direct fiber connection, according to market research firm IDATE, which unveiled the very detailed FTTH Market Panorama during the conference.

Many countries in Europe, including Germany and the UK, are not likely to reach what Heavy Reading refers to as “fiber maturity” by 2020 – at least 20% of homes subscribing to FTTH/B. Japan and South Korea reached that stage in 2007, and even China – a country with a massive population and massive challenges – is set to reach fiber maturity in the next five years, according to Finnie.

With this in mind, it is hard to see how Europe will meet the European Commission’s broadband targets as set out in the Digital Agenda. The Commission wants to see at least half of all households in Europe taking a broadband subscription at speeds of 100 Mbps or above. Even with vectoring, VDSL technologies will struggle to deliver that kind of speed to the majority of consumers.

The widening gap between the fiber leaders and laggards should also be of concern in Brussels. But although some countries are falling behind, it has only had a muted effect on politicians so far, says Finnie.

European politicians at the event promised to fight harder for the digital economy. “This [the loss of the digital element of the Connecting Europe Facility] is a setback, but Neelie Kroes does not give up easily,” said Anthony Wheelan, head of cabinet for Vice-President Kroes. “We still have the pilot projects for project bonds. And we still have the prospect of national investment under the EU structural funds. We will work even harder on the other instruments at our disposal.”

UK politicians, on the other hand, did not seem unduly concerned about their country’s dire position at the bottom of the league tables – no government representative turned up to deliver the official welcome speech. Instead, this job fell to Chinyelu Onwurah, former head of telecoms at UK regulator Ofcom and a member of the opposition party.

“When Labour left office we had a plan for broadband that went out 10 years,” she said. “You may not have agreed with it, but it was there. Now there isn’t even a plan beyond two years. We need to raise the level of technical debate on these issues.”

Karin Ahl, president of the FTTH Council Europe, issued a stern warning. “Countries that delay the roll out of FTTH are looking at a serious lost opportunity to prepare for their economic future,” she said.

For more information on FTTx equipment and suppliers, visit the Lightwave Buyer’s Guide.

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