Not everyone loves GPON

Dec. 1, 2005

Let’s face it-if fiber to the home is the flavor of the month, GPON is the chocolate version of it. As our article on the front page reveals, the run up to the RBOCs’ new GPON RFP has set vendors up and down the food chain scrambling to ready GPON products in hopes of earning a piece of the action.

I use the chocolate metaphor because I’m a chocoholic. Yet, I’m aware that not everyone feels the same way about chocolate as I do-just as not everyone thinks that GPON is necessarily the next big wave in optical access technologies. In fact, the proponents of the other major flavor-of-the-month alternative are vociferous in their defense of vanilla, strawberry, or whichever ice cream variety you’d like to call EPON. And GPON RFP or no RFP, they have a hard time believing that GPON will become the market winner.

EPON can deliver services as well or better than GPON, they say. Their confidence derives in part from the number of EPON deployments worldwide. Japan in particular has favored EPON after an earlier flirtation with GPON’s progenitor, BPON. “How many lines have been pulled in North America?” asks Lowell Lamb, vice president of marketing at EPON chip vendor Teknovus (Petaluma, CA). “We’re talking a few hundred, in the RBOCs, a few hundred or a few thousand. Counting all of the IOCs, [organizations] like that, maybe a few tens of thousands. This is not serious. Japan is running at something like 120,000 lines a month.”

The point is that while most GPON equipment is just coming on the market (offerings from Optical Solutions and FlexLight being the exceptions), EPON systems have already been through multiple product generations and deployment cycles. Therefore, most of the bugs will have been worked out by the time the RBOCs ponder fielding GPON equipment.

“So if all of that gets stabilized, standardized, is bulletproof, the cost has been driven out, there are multiple suppliers, it’s in big networks-what would persuade another service provider to say, ‘That’s nice, but I’m going to start all over myself and reinvent the wheel’? I have seen no examples of that elsewhere in mass markets,” Lamb asserts.

With that in mind, Lamb thinks that EPON has a good chance of success in any service provider’s evaluation process, including those of the RBOCs. “There will probably be, conservatively, between five and 10 million lines of IEEE EPON in deployment in Asia before there is anything approaching a mass market GPON system available. I have to believe that the IEEE stuff will get a good, hard look,” he offers. “We’ll have solved a lot of the stuff that has nothing to do with the framing and that has everything to do with making mass market products. We’ll be easily two years ahead of the ITU community. So I think we’ll get our chunk of the market in North America.”

I think Lamb and other EPON adherents are correct to think that the sudden interest in GPON from the RBOCs doesn’t mean the end of the road for them in North America. Certainly, plenty of carriers in the United States opted for EPON after the RBOCs launched their current BPON-based FTTP initiative. The fact that only Verizon chose to deploy BPON on a large scale, with SBC installing the technology solely into greenfield applications and BellSouth not at all, kept the door open for EPON vendors in other U.S. networks. I doubt that the arrival of GPON equipment will significantly change the three RBOCs’ deployment strategies. That means SBC will continue with rolling fiber to the node in overbuild applications-and BellSouth may once again decline to even pick a PON vendor.

However, when it comes to the RBOCs themselves, I think the business belongs to GPON unless the technology can’t meet the requirements. True, EPON will have the benefit of Ethernet economics. However, there’s nothing like the weight of an RBOC or three sitting on a vendor to accelerate a declining cost curve, as I’m sure Tellabs can attest. Therefore, I wouldn’t be surprised if the cost points for GPON are at least in EPON’s range.

And when it comes to “starting all over and reinventing the wheel,” the RBOCs have their own wheels already turning as far as back office management systems and similar infrastructure. They’ve already embarked down the ITU-approved path, and while EPON certainly can carry any traffic the RBOCs already have in place, my guess is that hooking into their networks won’t be quite as easy as it would be for GPON.

So it seems to me that unless the GPON community falls on its face, its technology will win this round of the RBOC tournament. However, that shouldn’t dampen the spirits of the EPON community. There will be plenty of ice cream to go around.

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