BellSouth announces new fiber-in-the-loop networking strategy

Nov. 1, 1998

BellSouth announces new fiber-in-the-loop networking strategy

By ROBERT PEASE

Fiber-optic technology is the first choice in metropolitan-area deployments today, according to Ken Cook, manager of infrastructure planning for the Atlanta-based regional Bell operating company, BellSouth. Cook was a participant on a panel discussing recent developments in the deployment of dense wavelength-division multiplexing (DWDM) systems at this year`s National Fiber Optic Engineers Conference (NFOEC) in Orlando, FL.

Cook presented BellSouth`s intention to deploy metro ring networks using DWDM by the end of 1999, which complements the company`s new strategy for a significant increase in integrated fiber-in-the-loop (FITL) initiatives. During the last few years, BellSouth`s approach involved the deployment of integrated fiber into about 80,000 new homes per year. But as the demand increases for integrating high-speed data and video capabilities with telephony services, a new strategy is taking shape for the company.

"What we`ve been doing during the last few months is studying some complete area-by-area replacements," says William L. Smith, vice president of network strategic planning for BellSouth.

With fiber-optic cable and equipment costs expected to decrease, Smith believes the advantages of fiber deployment into areas previously serviced by copper will eventually pay off. The major thrust of BellSouth`s strategy is slated for 1999, with engineering work already underway for approximately 100,000 homes in Atlanta and another 100,000 homes in south Florida. Although replacement fiber is a strategic part of the plan, Smith says the company is not looking at it as a fiber-only initiative.

"Most of our customers don`t care about the technology, they just want to see what services are available," says Smith. "We`re also coupling our asymmetric digital subscriber line [ADSL] capabilities and a multipoint multidirectional distribution system [MMDS] video offering as an integrated broadband capability. So we`ll be going to the mass market saying BellSouth has a full suite of capabilities that include high-speed data, entertainment video, and traditional telephony."

Depending on the location, an integrated FITL system will provide those services, although some locations will continue to use ADSL, MMDS, and twisted-pair copper. But Smith agrees that as fiber costs continue to drop, it makes the best economic sense to plan new builds with FITL systems, as well as fiber replacements in many areas. BellSouth isn`t posing this as a trial initiative, but has set out to prove what it has learned in the arena of FITL technology. The company`s intent is to aggressively apply FITL systems in the mass market and begin transforming its infrastructure accordingly, but on a far greater scale than ever before.

"What we`re talking about here is fiber to the curb," says Smith. "We`re putting an integrated FITL system in that basically takes you all the way from the central office to the pedestal at the curb of the home. It will change the way loop capacity management is done, and we`re still sorting through the details, but it actually replaces everything from the curb to the mainframe."

BellSouth is not new to FITL systems. The company has been doing integrated FITL in one variety or another for more than a decade. Some systems went into service as early as 1988. But technology has come a long way in 10 years and the economics of replacing older infrastructures are becoming more and more feasible. The difference today is the customer`s demand for more than just traditional telephone services, namely data and video. BellSouth believes it has done the math, and when the additional revenue potential for data and video is factored into the long-term equation of fiber versus copper, an aggressive replacement plan becomes economically viable.

"There is still a cost penalty on the initial investment for fiber over copper," says Smith. "It averages around 15%. But that`s based on doing nothing but voice-grade telephony services over that system. If you look at the additional advantages of fiber infrastructure, the additional revenue opportunities that you get, you`ll find you have better net present values with fiber systems."

Smith admits that the copper-versus-fiber decision was ultimately based on financial factors. In new builds, fiber might win out over copper despite the 15% additional cost. But up until now, the company seldom went in and replaced existing copper with fiber. Adding high-speed data and entertainment video to its service offerings, and looking at the "big picture," Smith believes BellSouth`s integrated FITL systems plan is looking very promising.

Fiber-optic cable replacements are scheduled to begin early in 1999. At press time, BellSouth`s fiber cable and equipment suppliers have not been named for specific projects. The company also intends to make sure the technology it purchases will ensure a robust, mature system.

BellSouth plans to offer Internet Protocol (IP) over FITL systems. Using WDM technology, different wavelengths can be used to support telephony, data, and video, all terminating at the optical network unit (ONU).

"The way we look at it, we have a tool kit that has lots of tools in it," says Smith. "In some cases, solution A is the right tool, and in other cases solution B is what works. Fiber-to-the-desk is a viable solution for a new office building complex being built from scratch. But if you have a 40-story office building with thousands of dollars in imbedded wire, you`re going to need a pretty compelling reason to go in and start pulling it all out in favor of fiber."

BellSouth is also looking to the future and keeping a watchful eye on developments in passive optical networking (PON) systems. Although the intent of the current strategy is the use of DWDM-based systems that still rely on electronics, the design will be scaleable to a PON system.

"We`re designing the system so that as this generation of equipment becomes obsolete and PON systems are ready for prime time," says Smith, "we can come back out and upgrade those systems as well." o

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