RBOC's PON deployment raises vendors' hopes

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As in many segments of the telecommunications industry, today's expectation of pushing fiber directly into homes is a far cry from the optimism of a few years ago. Yet, SBC Communications (San Antonio, TX) has rekindled the flickering hopes of fiber-to-the-home proponents by announcing it will provide fiber connectivity directly to residential customers in SBC Pacific Bell's Mission Bay project in San Francisco. Using a broadband passive-optical-network (BPON) platform from Alcatel (Paris), SBC plans to deliver voice, data, and video services over fiber to 6,000 residential units.

Since 1999, SBC has aggressively pursued the access market with its Project Pronto initiative, extending fiber connections to small-business customers. In May 2001, the company teamed with Paceon (Duluth, GA) to deploy BPON technology similar to Alcatel's. Although BPON is the common thread, SBC concluded that Paceon's technology is more suitable for business applications, while Alcatel's solution is a better choice to reach users in residential areas.

"We feel the BPON solution delivers the ultimate benefit of FTTH [fiber-to-the-home] to deliver all services—voice, data, and video—over a single, cost-effective platform," says John Britton, director of corporate communications at SBC Pacific Bell. "Unfortunately, current regulatory restraints on broadband deployment of RBOCs choke off these benefits and limit the expansion of this technology."

The suggestion is that once the regulatory obstacles are removed, BPON, as well as other forms of PON access, will likely gain popularity among carriers. SBC's Mission Bay project will deploy the Alcatel 7340 Fiber-to-the-User (FTTU) offering, an extension of the Alcatel broadband access product portfolio.

Jay Fausch, senior director of marketing for Alcatel's Broadband Networking Division, points out that service providers cannot afford to overlook competition from cable multiple service operators (MSOs).

"As service providers begin to address the significant competitive threat posed by the cable MSOs, they will increasingly turn to fiber in order to evolve to a futureproof network infrastructure that will allow them to compete with the 4-6-Gbit/sec infrastructure of the cable operators," he says.

Alcatel's 7340 is a standards-based BPON platform that uses coarse WDM to deliver 622 Mbits/sec downstream and 155 Mbits/sec upstream over a single fiber to a maximum of 32 subscribers over a distance of 20 km. In addition, the single fiber uses a separate dedicated wavelength (1550 nm) to deliver high-bandwidth video services.

Although Mission Bay is basically a greenfield operation, the fact that an RBOC is deploying the FTTH technology is exciting news for equipment manufacturers.

"Both the SBC deployment and Alcatel's commitment to the space are great news for other optical access companies like us," says Jeff Gwynne, senior vice president of marketing and business development at Quantum Bridge Communications (Andover, MA), a PON system manufacturer. "It says to me that the space is starting to gel. I believe strongly that you will see the other ILECs [incumbent local-exchange carriers] following suit with deep fiber deployments and that PON will be central to that strategy."

Gwynne also maintains that access applications based on fiber-optic technology will provide the key to the "deploy capital, get revenue" requirements necessary to pull the telecommunications industry out of its current economic crisis.

But not everyone is quick to agree that Mission Bay is a "typical FTTH model." Erik Keith, an analyst with telecommunications researcher Current Analysis (Sterling, VA), states in a recent report that although the Mission Bay project demonstrates Alcatel's long-term commitment as a leader in the broadband access space, as well as SBC's initiative to deploy such technology, it's still not really representative of the future large-scale FTTH deployments that will mark the technology's ascension.

"The Mission Bay project is effectively a greenfield deployment, where the build-out of a new fiber-based access infrastructure is an integral component of the construction process and does not require mass-scale replacement or overbuild of an existing copper infrastructure," says Keith. "As such, the Mission Bay urban renewal project does not represent anything close to a typical residential broadband deployment scenario."

Still, Keith concedes some positive value in the SBC/Alcatel deal and, although Alcatel reaps most of the benefits, other access players can also gain some attention. Being the most aggressive and successful RBOC in terms of broadband deployment, SBC's public endorsement of the Alcatel technology could signal that other incumbent carriers may be on the lookout for PON-based access platforms.

That's good news for other companies that are just beginning to make some headway with customer wins in this space, such as Quantum Bridge, Optical Solutions (Minneapolis), and AllOptic (Livermore, CA). Most of these companies are offering prestandard, proprietary Ethernet-based (EPON) equipment with the promise of greater cost-effectiveness and scaling efficiencies over the longer term.

It's likely the access space will be a hotbed of activity in the next few years. Even though service providers hope to continue leveraging their existing copper plants for providing broadband services, it's becoming increasingly clear that at least for greenfield opportunities, installing fiber in residential projects may be the better long-term decision.

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