By ROBERT PEASE
Fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) technology promises to bring all the benefits of fiber-faster speeds, huge capacity-directly to every household in America within the next 10 years, say some optimists. As with most of the recent improvements to the Internet and cable TV, most of the populated areas in the largest cities will reap these benefits long before those in a rural setting, right? Not necessarily.
In fact, many FTTH systems are finding their way into new housing developments at a cost that rivals that of copper in frastructure. In a rugged section of Colorado known as Hatchet Ranch, for example, Rye Telephone Co. (Colorado City, CO) is taking fiber-optic cable all the way to the ranchers.
"The subdivision we're building this in originally started out as 18,000 acres, subdivided into minimum 40-acre parcels," says Garry MacCormick, president and general manager at Rye. "Since then, it has expanded into almost 30,000 acres and about 500 lots."
Why would it make sense to string fiber out to a single household that is literally miles from its nearest neighbor? It's not so much the consumer's interest or need of fiber as that of the land developer. Rye was approached to provide communications infrastructure to the Hatchet Ranch project and simply ran the numbers on fiber versus copper cabling.
"The fiber came in just slightly over what it would cost for copper," says MacCormick. "When you look at 30,000 acres and how many miles it takes to get from a point of going into a development and getting to the furthest lot out there, you're looking at some 27 miles on some of these roads. The last guy out there is 27 miles from the highway. If you were using standard broad-gauge copper design, you're going to end up with the same inherent problem seen in larger urban areas and subdivisions."
Massive projects, costing huge amounts of time and money to service providers, are underway in more populated business and residential areas that have an installed copper base. MacCormick points out that it's a much more sensible business proposition to simply install fiber in the first place. Therefore, the logic is that regardless of how rural an area may be, the time will come when copper will no longer offer the benefits already available with a FTTH installation.
"Why are we going to go in and spend that kind of money to literally build a 'firewall' to ourselves when we have the opportunity to go out there and put fiber in?" MacCormick asks rhetorically. "We don't have to worry about repeaters. We don't have to worry about limitations on copper. I can bring the same communication services to every customer, whether they're on the highway or 27 miles from the highway. They get the same level and quality of signal transmission. So in the long run, I believe we'll be way ahead with the fiber and any additional fiber costs."
The FTTH system is being deployed by Optical Solutions Inc., a Minneapolis-based company specializing in delivering bundled fiber services directly to the home. The company's FTTH product, FiberPath, supports a 5-mi fiber radius that includes a passive optical network (PON) built around a 32-way downstream split and upstream eight-way passive optical merge.
"From the distribution point, we have a PON," says Joe Dooley, director of product management at Optical Solutions. "Our headend and CO [central-office] equipment would either be residing at the office or, in the case of Rye, at an active node where they can put an extension from their CO out to a node cabinet. From there, they can disperse the signals over the last 5 mi of the fiber."
Rye's configuration is using an optical repeater functionality that consists of a remote bay configuration at the active node that serves up to 512 universal demarcation points, each at an individual subscribers premise. The system consists of 16 32-node PONs served by one cabinet whereby the passive couplers and splitters can be deployed in a variety of architectures. For example, Rye has 1x4 fusion-spliced splitters that are out in the field, enabling the carrier to concentrate the number of fibers coming back to the node and reduce the total fiber count while still providing full service.
"There is a lot of flexibility in the PON architecture and in the system itself," says Dooley. "One thing we like to point out with FiberPath is the ability to provide future additional broadband services. The much higher bandwidth capacity provided by fiber enables upgradable video and high-speed data, as well as telephony, to each home."
Rye recently inked a second contract valued at $4.2 million to follow the Hatchet Ranch project with fiber to another 3,000 homes in rural Colorado. With about 90% of Rye's facilities consisting of buried copper, some more than 22 years old, constant upgrades, repairs, and line extensions are necessary to existing infrastructure. The question the company posed was "are we better served by putting money back into a copper infrastructure, or do we start now doing a scheduled rebuild to get fiber to those customers we currently serve?" according to McCormick. The answer was the economical justification of replacing existing infrastructure over the next three years with fiber-optic technology.
When it comes to futureproofing networks, as fiber-based-architecture prices become more comparable to that of copper, the business case for deploying fiber is making more sense to Rye and other service providers. Tearing out legacy copper in favor of new fiber-optic technology is a looming decision many local carriers and service providers will face in the not-too-distant future. As for new builds, fiber's benefits are gaining the edge for both business and residential customers who want "bandwidth to burn."