Will FTTH innovation continue?

This month, Corning Inc. and Lightwave recognize this year’s FTTXcellence Award recipient at the FTTH Conference in Las Vegas, NV. The FTTXcellence Award is designed to recognize an individual who, over the past year, has done the most to advance the cause of optical access technology deployment in North America. Individuals must be nominated by their peers to be considered for the award. While the announcements of this year’s honoree will have been made and the photos taken by the time you read this (the presentation ceremony was scheduled to take place October 5), I’ll refrain from spilling the beans here, just in case. You’ll find an official announcement of this year’s award winner at www.lightwaveonline.com.

The interesting thing about picking someone to honor this year was the comparative difficulty of the decision versus the previous two years. Someone from Verizon was a no-brainer in 2004; the fact that an RBOC had decided to install fiber to the home validated the concept and brought a grassroots movement into the mainstream. The installation practices that George Bell, senior staff consultant, fiber to the premises (FTTP) at Verizon, put into place would chart the direction for both other deployments and the products that would be used in them. James Hettrick from the City of Loma Linda, CA, also stood out for the novelty of getting fiber to the home established in the city’s building codes and for his tireless evangelism of the benefits of optical access technologies at gatherings across the country.

The problem this year wasn’t that no one stood out-it was that too many people did. We had candidates from municipalities, construction companies, training organizations, the legal profession, academia, the vendor arena, and rural telcos, to name a few. Now that fiber to the home has become a viable alternative to DSL and hybrid fiber/coax approaches to broadband service provision, the number of people who have stepped forward to take a leadership role has increased significantly. Not surprisingly, this year set a record for the number of nominations we received.

The amount of innovation that is occurring across the United States and Canada is inspiring. At the same time, however, it is somewhat disconcerting to realize that the future viability of some of the engines of this innovation-particularly the municipalities-remains uncertain.

As our previous coverage has outlined, several municipalities interested in deploying their own optical access network have come under fire from their local telcos and cable MSOs for what the incumbent providers consider unfair competition. These carriers have successfully lobbied several state legislatures to ban municipalities from the telecom business, which potentially leaves citizens in areas that don’t offer a promising business model-or where video franchise reform has not yet been enacted-at the bottom of the broadband list.

With telecom law reform a seeming priority in Congress this year, the proponents of municipal broadband, video franchise reform, and Internet neutrality (or lack thereof), among other issues, all lobbied hard for their various causes. A compromise between the municipal backers and the incumbents, in which city network rights and video franchise reform would coexist, appeared to be shaping up in both houses of Congress-until the Senate version became entangled in concerns over Internet neutrality. As this editorial is being written, Congress is about to break for electioneering, leaving the fate of the Senate bill, and the hopes this year for a buttress for municipal telecom rights, very much up in the air. Some predict that Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, the architect of the Senate bill, may attempt to get his legislation enacted by attaching it to an appropriations bill when Congress returns later this year.

If this doesn’t happen, or such efforts are thwarted, the backers of municipal networks face an uphill battle in meeting their goals next year. The incumbents have opened a second front, in the state legislatures, in their battle for video franchise reform. This campaign has proved quite successful, which would make another run at franchise reform on the national level unnecessary. Without a quid pro quo for dropping their opposition, the incumbents would be free to lobby against additional competition from cities and towns, making passage of pro-municipal legislation even less likely than it appears now.

As the nomination process I’ve just experienced shows, the municipalities are among the leading sources of optical access network activity and innovation. In fact, outside of Verizon, the major incumbents can only point to greenfield applications at AT&T and the occasional high-end development at Qwest as fiber-to-the-home highlights. The optical communications industry in the U.S. will be considerably poorer if it loses the municipalities as significant participants.

Stephen M. Hardy
Editorial Director & Associate Publisher
stephenh@pennwell.com

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