The march towards fiber is a pragmatic imperative

by Jean-Pierre Lartigue

Overview
Thanks to several factors, the adoption of FTTx has evolved from a theoretical to a practical matter. Thus, efforts must now focus on how to make such architectures easier and more economical to employ. A variety of stakeholders will have a role to play.


As we begin 2009, the march toward “fiber nations” is entering a new phaseâ��a phase that will demand greater flexibility and more pragmatism, particularly in these turbulent economic times.

Less than a decade ago, the focus of our discussion was theoretical: How could nations rapidly embrace FTTH? But in the past four years, our theoretical focus has been altered by better modeling, local trials, and the challenge of mass deployment. Faced with these issues, it is now possible to agree on some basic facts:

The move to fiber is well underway. Those nations leading the pack�Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Belgium, and Switzerland�are already providing super-broadband services to more than 50% of their households (using either VDSL, FTTH, or DOCSIS 3.0). Trailing these leaders with more than 20% of enabled households are the U.S., Germany, Taiwan, Denmark, and Sweden. From a global perspective, super-broadband subscribers currently represent almost 10% of broadband subscribers worldwide, with yearly growth of approximately 80% during the past four years.

Improved multimedia customer experience and personal content exchange are driving sustained end-user demand for more bandwidth to the home. New uses and lifestyles will reinforce this trend not only for wireline access but also for wireless (whose capabilities lag by approximately six years).

Not one economic model, technology, or marketing approach has proven to fit all cases. Nations that have successfully deployed super-broadband services have taken very diverse paths.

Many successful nations are facilitating alternative choices. The U.S., for example, has encouraged numerous investors, including the former RBOCs, cable operators, and local utilities. A diversity of service offerings has also been encouraged, including exclusive high-definition video offers, as well as boosted access to “over-the-top” providers. Numerous technologies, such as VDSL and cable, are also being leveraged for fast roll outâ��with FTTH remaining the long-run option of choice. The same diversity is true of architectures, where PON (in majority) or point-to-point (P2P) are being leveraged depending upon the local topology and the passive infrastructure.

It has become clear that regulatory certainty is critical to assure private stakeholders of the stability required for business planning. Even so, it is not the fundamental trigger for a super-broadband service. Usually, the availability or build of passive infrastructure is the critical requirement on which public policy has increasingly focused (as illustrated in France, Portugal, and Spain, and in recent recommendations by the European Commission).

Each nation has to strike a more workable and intelligent balance between public and private involvement because we are also facing a global renewal of national infrastructures. Here, one can choose from a variety of collaborative models, including the Délégation de service public in France, local public utilities in the Nordics, as well as public/private partnerships in the Netherlands. Over time, partnerships have demonstrated that telecommunications networks are best operated privately, but that underserved areas or significant civil work still requires public financial intervention.

For these reasons, we need to become much more pragmatic in making the broadband world faster. That means we need to leave behind our early debates that were too theoretical (e.g., industry restructuring through fiber) and face the more practical challenge of enabling mass adoption of fiber head on.

To begin with, it is important to note that, in any battle, the first and most important factor in assuring success is to know your territory. Similarly, in fiber deployment, it is critical to first make an inventory of the civil work required to leverage existing resources�trenches, ducts, copper cables, chambers, and cabinet placements. That's why, in many countries, the local communities are the first stakeholders that need to be catalyzed, and why any available synergies between public and private stakeholders should also be encouraged.

The second step is to determine which architecture can best enable fast deployment of super-broadband, whether it's fiber to the node (with VDSL drop), fiber to the building/neighborhood (with VDSL or Fast Ethernet drop), FTTH, or WiMAX/satellite (in low-density areas or developing countries without copper). For all of these options, GPON or P2P can serve as the aggregation technology. Statistics show that GPON is the faster growing technology, having been adopted by more than 70% of operators with subscriber growth of more than 150% in the last four years. Indeed, on the basis of absolute volume, GPON now outstrips P2P, which is growing at less than half the rate (60%). Going forward, however, VDSL (FTTN or FTTB) is expected to remain a key option; it saves on short-term investment by reusing the last 100 to 500 m of copper.

Alcatel-Lucent has conducted extensive strategic reviews in all countries engaged with roll out of super-broadband services and has almost always recommended a mix of architectures. This includes reuse of any existing infrastructure in the ground to assure return on investment (ROI) in less than eight years. Furthermore, our analyses have increasingly focused on synergies among residential broadband, enterprise, and mobile aggregation networks, particularly as capacity improves in residential broadband bandwidth with GPON and P2P.

As a result, we anticipate more coordinated approaches to backhaul 3G/4G LTE data wireless with dense FTTx infrastructure and small radio cells. With the progressive rollout of 10-Gbps PON, backhaul capacity to both radio base stations and buildings will also be significantly improved.

The third critical factor is to facilitate successful collaboration among public and private stakeholders. To build this ecosystem, we need healthy, high-speed broadband competitors to discuss the evolution of next-generation broadband services. New stakeholders from outside the telecommunications industry must also be involved as they often control the civil works. National regulators and public authorities will have a key role, too.

Experience to date gives us some important lessons.

First, a distinction in approach must be made among highly competitive urban areas, underserved rural areas, and attractive suburban areas, many of which are facing serious financial challenges. In this context, sharing the ducts and chambers is the first priority when competition among service providers is being encouraged. Proactive fiber cabling in buildings is also a long-term determinant, and should be done once only for all operators. In areas where ducts are constrained, sharing of dark fiber becomes a necessity; while this may occur independently of the architecture chosen by various operators (e.g., FTTx, PON/P2P), these choices must be factored in. In some cases, the installation of multiple fibers in the building for each subscriber might be considered, but in most cases such a strategy results in over-investment and practical complexity. Another issue is deciding which stakeholder will take the lead in a building or neighborhood to coordinate the passive infrastructure on behalf of the others.

The final factor for success is end-user adoption. As we know, fiber nations along the path to broadband mobility are producing new market trends. Broadband content has become a mainstream source of entertainment and information; the millennial generation has created a new breed of consumers with its “my time, my place, my device, my choice” mantra; and the home has become network-intense and will gradually become automated. In fact, the broadband-equipped home, augmented with pervasive mobility and Web 2.0 interactivity, will soon become the cornerstone of a new digital lifestyle.

To accelerate this movement�to achieve mass market adoption available to all�we will need to adopt a pragmatic fiber philosophy. Only by being pragmatic will we be able to extend the transformative power of fiber beyond those nations where the power of fiber is already at work. The most promising first steps are to reuse the existing infrastructure, reduce our energy consumption and footprint (in particular with E/GPON), consolidate home devices, automate smart metering, and activate associated devices. Finally, in the medium term, technology options such as WDM-PON will have to be judged on whether they can meet new sustainable development standards.

Jean-Pierre Lartigue is vice-president, marketing and communications, in Alcatel-Lucent's Fixed Access Division (www.alcatel-lucent.com).

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