Taking stock of FTTH

by Jean-Pierre Lartigue

There’s a point in every year when I look back and try to figure out what progress the world around me and I have made in the past 12 months, usually in an attempt to celebrate the warm feeling of common achievements and to set milestones. I used to do this according to the calendar year. Now, I’m in the habit of gauging time in “FTTH years”, and I find my calendar has a new starting date: the eve of the annual Fibre to the Home Council Europe conference every February!

We’re fast approaching that date and as I look over my shoulder at what has been, I am astonished by the changes that have taken place and progress that has been made. Cast your mind back 12 months to a series of discussions characterised by “maybe” and “wannabe.” Asia and North America were leaving the rest of the world behind in terms of FTTH investment and roll-out. That money was being laid out by the big incumbent operators. The investment of tens of billions of yen and dollars made the trickle of pennies, shillings, and cents invested by the rest of the world look very meagre. None of the large players seemed prepared to commit. Echoes of “it’s the ‘wrong’ business environment” and “there’s an absence of ‘helpful’ industrial policy” were heard. Now we’re prepared to do a double-take.

France Telecom (as the incumbent in France and challenger elsewhere) was the first of Europe’s giant telcos to invest, jumping in with both feet to plan a significant FTTH roll-out. Telefónica followed suit in the various countries where it is present. Other national operators have joined the fray: Neuf Cegetel in France, Telecom Italia, Iceland Telecom, and Telenor in Norway, for instance. And now, most nationwide operators have become noticeably more enthusiastic, studying and trialling their fibre-in-the-access strategy.

In hindsight, the promise was laid before us 12 months ago for all to see. The municipal and regional governments were forging new kinds of legal and business relationships with private money to create the underpinnings for competitive FTTH services-opening sewers, building passive infrastructure, and championing the cause of Europe’s disadvantaged digital citizens in particular. Alternative nationwide operators were starting to look at fibre in the access as the dominant next step of their growth. Several regulators increasingly shifted their focus from access network replication to investigation of the underlying infrastructure needed to resolve the horizontal (ducts) and vertical (indoor cabling) barriers to mass fibre deployment.

In this respect, mandatory in-building cable sharing and “fibre-ready” building labelling have been an important starting point. Moreover, such initiatives have given much more visibility to what is really available, reusable, or needed for multi-operator passive infrastructure, and in particular, the roll-out of new outside plant designs (for example, access to ducts and poles, and new sharing rules for dark fibre). Whilst none of these initiatives were individually compelling, they amounted to a whole heap of motivation as a package.

The technology of FTTH has also come of age in the last 12 months. The shift from “marketecture” to architecture has consigned a lot of once-interesting theories and arguments to the history books. Unequivocally, passive point-to-multipoint FTTH technologies have emerged as the main medium for mass FTTH deployment. Of these, GPON has seized the market momentum by promising to serve the largest number of homes over a given geographic area with the smallest number of passive spans. GPON is also the best standardised of its peers. France Telecom will use it, as will Telefónica, Telecom Italia, Telenor, Etisalat (UAE), and Velton (Ukraine). This is in addition to Verizon, Bell Canada, and AT&T. GPON is also in trials in many areas of the world-for example, at British Telecom and SingTel.

A year ago, some pundits stated that GPON could not be shared amongst operators and would run afoul of regulators. Not true, says experience: GPON can be shared at the fibre level (France) and at the bit-stream level (Sweden city nets). Likewise, some were stating that GPON wouldn’t suit alternative operators. Again, not true. Just ask Neuf Cegetel, Hanaro Telecom, Hong Kong Broadband Networks, and Transact, among others.

Wherever you look in the world at large, there is now widespread recognition that FTTH is unquestionably the end game for high-speed broadband services. No one uses “if” anymore. It’s always “how.” The answer to that question, by the way, is remarkably varied. Alcatel-Lucent proposes that the guiding principle be to take fibre to the deepest economical point in the access network. For some, like Verizon, this will mean fibre directly to the home or basement. In Spain and Norway, FTTH is blended with a central office-based VDSL2 service. AT&T will use FTTH for greenfield locations, and fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) with deep fibre placement of VDSL2 for the rest. While one could question the efficiency of intermediate investments in FTTH, we have come to expect that peaceful coexistence of FTTH and FTTN ought to be expected on the progressive route to a “Fibre Nation.”

Looking ahead, operators might be expected to adopt the following resolutions as they enter their own “New FTTH Year”:

  • Those who can’t reach the home in one step will plan, right from the beginning, a phased migration that continually moves the fibre termination closer to the home to provide ever-increasing capacity.
  • Even as FTTN and xDSL play their part in the FTTH migration, operators will begin to consolidate their equipment into fewer, larger central offices (COs) better suited to GPON FTTH.
  • Operators will plan to swap points-of-presence beyond the COs from active to passive components as fibre moves deeper into the network. In this respect, active Ethernet approaches, such as those initially preferred by Scandinavian municipalities, will increasingly migrate toward GPON as networks need to scale.
  • Operators will continue to deploy home cabling, home networking, and service automation technologies that take into account the increasing breadth and sophistication of broadband usage.
  • Operators will seek consistent, uniform IP service delivery across all broadband platforms, independent of the access type (DSL, fibre, WiMAX, or femtocell).
  • Operators will adopt unified management platforms that cross all access technologies, embracing subscriber services, content, and network management into a single platform that delivers low operating costs.

Finally, with all of this investment by the telcos, what does the New FTTH Year bring for those municipal and public sector investments in networks that arguably started the ball rolling?

It is certain that public sector-sponsored networks will continue to play an important role in enabling ubiquitous roll-out of FTTH service. A clear-cut case for public deployment exists in smaller cities, towns, and rural areas with fewer than 10,000 homes or so. The density and/or size of these areas make the business case for FTTH difficult for telcos. Here, smart use of public sector money for FTTH networks will help to avoid a “fibre divide” and enable incumbent and alternative operators to roll out widespread FTTH services more quickly.

All in all, the last 12 months have seen staggering changes in the outlook for FTTH in Europe and the rest of the world. From that perspective, I have no hesitation in wishing you a Happy New FTTH Year!

Jean-Pierre Lartigue is vice president, marketing and communications, in Alcatel-Lucent’s Fixed Access Division (www.alcatel-lucent.com).

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