Creating the Path to 400G (and beyond) as Fiber Moves to Main Street

March 30, 2022
Moving to faster speeds has always been a part of the network lifecycle. But user demand driving faster edge networks, converged network models, and richer applications has created a perfect storm with significant implications for network evolution.

Upgrading to faster speeds has always been a part of the telecom network lifecycle. But the industry faces its next major leap as a perfect storm of user demand driving faster edge networks, converged network models, and richer applications has significantly raised the bar for core network speed requirements.

The move to 400G and beyond isn’t just about entertainment, remote work, or online classes. It’s about all of it, in thousands of configurations that support multiple streams of each, running in homes across the country, in neighborhoods large and small, and doing so with no impact on the customer experience. It’s about the ability to support innovative new services and market disruptions, and we are only seeing the tiniest tip of the iceberg so far.

The network has been a fundamental enabler of disruption for decades, from AOL to web browsing to music and movie streaming. The network is what made it all possible and then continued to make it better as more capacity became available. Make no mistake, fiber is going to be deployed everywhere. It makes the most economic sense and creates the most efficient path to revenue as companies plan for tomorrow. It is the only type of infrastructure that can support every type of service and application people are consuming today and it can support these services and customers both infinitely and at scale. This means that the entertainment industry can continue to protect margins and release blockbuster films directly over streaming platforms. It means gaming consoles can move confidently toward offering VR and AR. And it means the work-from-home tools that we have come to rely on, such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom, will not be affected as everyone everywhere moves further online.

Once fiber is deployed through the community, smart community leaders and operators will be looking to layer business and municipal services into the mix. These services will provide enhanced public safety and first responder support, modernize the electrical grid, and enable city planners to layer on a rich set of smart city applications that cover everything from parking to traffic lights.

Taking it one step further, communities also will leverage fiber to support economic development. When fiber is present, the ability to support any industry or segment becomes possible. This means IoT applications for manufacturing, precision agriculture for farming, and having the capacity to support interconnects for data centers.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will enable every community to deploy fiber to ensure it is not left behind as other markets fully embrace what is possible. Operators already need to ensure capacity is available for services that exist today, which include the evolution in data center interconnects, backhaul/fronthaul/xHaul for 5G and other wireless services, and community broadband growth to support smart cities, smart grid, business and residential services, and entertainment. Requirements for lower latency and symmetrical bandwidth will necessitate bigger pipes everywhere — not a cycle of shifting bottlenecks and band-aid fixes.

Converged networks – consolidating residential, business, and wireless traffic formerly run as separate entities – will offer simplified management and reduced expenses for carriers. The world of software-defined network (SDN) and network function virtualization (NFV) require low-latency and high-capacity networks to enable operators to respond on the fly to constantly changing requirements between traffic types and their users. For example, holiday-time shopping driving e-commerce needs are fundamentally different from mid-summer vacation usage patterns, so network operators need to be able to adjust accordingly and as needed.

Richer bandwidth-intensive applications and services, such as streaming services and home security monitoring, were already driving increased speeds at a steady rate, but the pandemic drove systemic, society-wide changes. Work-from-home moved from being a Silicon Valley perk to an integral part of how businesses operate. Similarly, telemedicine jumped from a niche application to mainstream usage. Improvements to existing services, such as streaming moving from 4K to 8K, and new services will continue to move the bar upward.

Let’s take a closer look at the three factors driving the migration to 400G and beyond.

Faster edge networks

Fiber, cable, and wireless are the primary delivery mechanisms for consumer broadband today, with fiber the primary and preferred mechanism for delivering broadband to medium and large businesses. You will not see new buildouts of copper-based networks with greenfield projects defaulting to fiber. As copper plants become more expensive to maintain and operate, fiber is the solution of choice to replace it. In addition, fiber is intertwined with both cable and wireless networks, with cable on a migration path toward all-fiber networks.

Current fiber to the home (FTTH) networks are already capable of delivering or are delivering gigabit-class services while numerous greenfield projects under construction today are investing in 10-Gbps XGS-PON networks as a future-proof alternative. AT&T and Verizon launched multi-gigabit service availability this year and both carriers have indicated they will support 10-Gbps services in the future.

A few pioneers have started deploying 25G PON, providing a future-proof path to upgrade speeds through at least 100G over the next five years. The 25G to 100G PON path looks incredibly attractive for service providers who wish to stay ahead of competitors who have announced plans to migrate to 10-Gbps services.

While the cable industry has announced it plans to roll out 10-G services in the future, that promise is dependent upon the ability of operators to incorporate and deploy more fiber. RF and coax-based technologies have reached the end of their useful life, making legacy cable’s inability to cost-effectively deliver multi-gig speeds even more apparent.

Smaller to mid-sized cable providers are deploying fiber for its ability to deliver symmetrical speeds to businesses and residences and the cost savings fiber provides over legacy equipment in terms of maintenance, network complexity, and power consumption. Larger service providers are working to push fiber deeper into their networks, leveraging open standards to deliver speeds of 100 Gbps over distances of up to 20 km between a cable headend and a local coax-based distribution hub. But service providers will ultimately have to migrate to an all-fiber network to stay competitive with the symmetrical 10-Gbps fiber services being turned up today for homes and businesses.

High-speed wireless services already need fiber to deliver 100 Mbps and faster speeds for existing 4G and 5G networks. The multi-gig speeds promised by 5G services come at the end of a 100-Gbps fiber connection. Fiber is the key component for enabling 5G urban microcell networks since RF spectrum will be too valuable and cumbersome to use for xHaul purposes. It also plays a role in multi-access edge computing (MEC), providing the connectivity between a centralized cloud, distributed MEC resources close to the end-user or application to deliver mission-critical, low-latency applications, and the 5G wireless access network.

Converged and migrational networks

AT&T and Verizon operate converged networks, consolidating separate residential, business, and wireless networks into a single operational entity. The simplification enables them to reduce the overhead costs of operating three separate networks and to best optimize the use of fiber and network resources without excessive duplication. By virtue of the massive amounts of aggregated traffic they carry every day, 400G and faster speeds are not a vanity upgrade, but a necessity to keep up with existing usage and future growth.

However, other carriers operating fiber networks for one purpose now find themselves with new options as market conditions and customer demand develop. Wireless and cellular carriers purchasing and deploying fiber to support their networks have the option to deploy dedicated end-to-end fiber connectivity to businesses and residential customers when necessary, enabling them to offload existing spectrum and free it for other users and uses.

Operators of fixed wireless networks in some markets can leverage xHaul fiber as a building block to replace radios and antennas with FTTH in their markets. There are several wireless internet service providers (WISPs) that initially deployed wireless services to a community and then found sufficient market demand and resources to implement dedicated fiber to residences and businesses. Fiber-based service providers have also used fixed wireless as an intermediate step to quickly deploy broadband services to customers, later deploying fiber as business conditions and building schedules allow.

Richer applications

Bandwidth-intensive applications are the final trend upping the ante to move from lower speeds to 400 Gbps and beyond. Multi-person real-time video conferencing is now a fully accepted tool in the work-from-home and distance-learning communities, requiring symmetrical high-speed bandwidth and lots of it outside of traditional business connectivity. As users upgrade cameras and computers over the next five years – and demand better video resolution with lower latency standards – network operators will have to upgrade with them.

In the past two years, telemedicine has no longer been seen as a niche application but a tool available to everyone. The healthcare industry is already moving beyond simple video chat into models where wearables and smart devices will provide key biometrics to assess wellbeing and keep people out of the doctor’s office as much as possible to improve patient experience and outcomes while controlling costs for insurance companies.

Today’s smart home services are only going to become smarter with the collection of more data and the application of artificial intelligence (AI) to improve the reliability of large appliances and HVAC systems. Security systems will evolve from today’s 1K video standard to 4K when light is available and switch to low-light and IR when it is not, with the robot vacuum cleaner doing double duty as a remote camera platform to investigate glass breaking and loud noises when nobody’s home.

On the business side of the equation, verticals such as agriculture and construction are embracing AI and the cloud to improve efficiency and productivity. Precision agriculture is bringing autonomous vehicles to the field so farmers can plough fields, plant crops, and accurately apply fertilizer to boost yields and reduce costs. Construction digitalization is enabling firms to quickly and accurately document progress on projects, providing real-time into work completion and reducing delays and rework costs.

Towards terabit networks

If there is one truism in the broadband world, nobody has ever said they have had too much bandwidth and they have very rarely had to turn down their network speeds. Today’s 10 Gbps to 100 Gbps, core networks are going to evolve swiftly to 400 Gbps and faster just to keep pace with the perfect storm of faster edge connections, the use of converged networks, and richer applications driving user demand. It is not hard to see a day in the near-future where terabit-class speeds are network standards.

Gary Bolton is president and CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association, the largest trade association in the Americas dedicated to all-fiber-optic broadband. With more than three decades in the telecom industry, Bolton joined the Fiber Broadband Association as president and CEO in 2020 after serving on the association’s board as vice chairman, treasurer, and vice chairs of public policy and marketing committees.

About the Author

Gary Bolton | vice president, global marketing

Gary Bolton is vice president, global marketing at ADTRAN.

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