Italy opts for fiber-to-the-building

Italy opts for fiber-to-the-building

ADELE HARS

STET of Italy, the state-owned holding company of telecommunications-related companies, plans to spend 12 trillion lira (approximately US$7.5 billion) on a broadband network for cable TV and advanced services. The network will cover 10 million homes--half of the homes in Italy--with installation of fiber-to-the-building and fiber-to-the-home by the end of 1998.

Telecom Italia, a STET company, is investing 10 trillion lira (US$6.25 billion) of the total amount to build this network, known as the Socrate Project, which will cover most of Italy`s major cities. (Socrate stands for Sviluppo Ottico Coassiale della Rete di Accesso Telecom or optical-coaxial development of the telecommunications access network.)

If the Socrate Project proves successful, Italy could become Europe`s leader in fiber-optic networks. Italy already has more than 1 million kilometers of fiber in its telephone network. [Next month`s Lightwave will continue coverage of fiber optics developments in Italy. The issue will also include information about participants in the Socrate Project and the impending breakup of Telecom Italia in 1998.--Ed.]

Paul Lee, a consultant specializing in telecommunications at Ovum Ltd. in London and joint author of a new report titled New Opportunities in European Telecommunications: The Impact of Liberalization, observes that "no other operator in Europe is thinking about running fiber to that extent."

Technical characteristics

According to Telecom Italia, the Socrate Project network will be structured as follows: Services generated at the site of the service provider are gathered in a distribution center (there will be one in each city). From there, they are distributed to local centers over fiber-optic links. The services are then sent by fiber-optic cable to the optical nodes placed in the streets. From there, the signals are distributed to the homes of users via a coaxial-cable network. The set-top box will make the services available in a format that can be received either by TV sets or personal computers (see figure).

STET of Italy comprises more than 100 companies, several of which will be involved in this new project. Sirti, for example, is STET`s engineering arm and has designed and built cable-TV systems that can carry telephony for MCI, Nynex and others in the U.K. It has also clinched recent broadband contracts in Spain and Portugal. Despite having no such systems in Italy, STET has the expertise it needs in-house. Another STET company, Stream, will be the network`s service provider.

The Socrate Project will be implemented in three phases. Phase 1 began at the end of 1995 and will continue through mid-1997. This phase involves building the fiber backbone; final distribution is via coaxial cable to the home, and set-top boxes are analog. Stream will provide basic channel cable, pay TV, pay-per-view and near video-on-demand. The first 350,000 homes were recently passed.

Phase 2, which targets fiber-to-the-building and fiber-to-the-home, is slated to begin mid-1997. During this phase, the analog set-top boxes will be exchanged for digital ones. Stream will provide interactive digital services such as video-on-demand, home shopping, interactive video games, telemedicine, home banking, telelearning, music-on-demand and telecommuting.

Integrating narrowband services

The last phase of the project is slotted for 1998 to 1999 and will integrate "on a single platform those narrowband services (telephony, integrated services digital network and data lines) already supplied under the traditional network," says a Telecom Italia spokesperson.

To date, three contracts have been awarded to cover the Phase 1 builds in major cities. The winners are a Sirti-led consortium, known as CORED 2000 (the name stands for "consortium for the telecommunications network for the year 2000"); EMT, a consortium whose members include Ericsson Telecomunicazioni, Marconi and Tratos; and an Alcatel consortium comprising Alcatel Cable and Alcatel Italy.

According to Alberto Trondoli, CORED general manager, the CORED contract is worth approximately 560 billion lira (US$350 million). The company is responsible for the design of the broadband network and the coordination of work related to its installation in seven cities, including Milan, Turin, Bologna, Naples, Trieste, Bari and Genoa. CORED is installing more than 2500 fiber nodes that can each support 300 homes, for a total of more than 800,000 homes passed. Sirti is responsible for system integration and supply of the network management system.

Equipment and electronics are being supplied by Italtel, which is a STET and Siemens company. Pirelli is supplying the coaxial and fiber-optic cables.

The contract won by EMT is worth approximately US$200 million. According to Antonio Cassese, who is responsible for Ericsson`s Broadband Business Unit, Ericsson is responsible for all systems integration, installation of the physical network, and all the electronics, optical amplifiers and equipment in the exchanges. Marconi is providing coaxial amplifiers, and Tratos is providing the cables.

Ericsson also won a lucrative French contract (see Lightwave, January 1996, page 8). While there are similarities between the French and Italian systems, Cassese explains that the latter is a massive deployment that will initially support broadcast-oriented services at 5 to 860 megahertz. The French contract was more of an interactive services field trial.

EMT won contracts in several historic cities, including Rome, Florence and Venice, probably because of its microtunneling technology. "Digging in an historic city is demanding because relics are buried everywhere," says Cassese. "Ericsson is a leader in microtunneling for historic cities," he says. The technology, which uses a sensor-based digging tool (similar to a system used for arthroscopic surgery), has a low environmental impact. The dig is done without removing the sidewalk.

Alcatel`s network system is expected to pass 300 homes per fiber node. The company will be working in four cities--Bolzano, Trento, Verona and Vicenza--in northeast Italy. According to Sebastiano Tanka, a technical manager responsible for Alcatel technology for the Socrate Project, Alcatel Italia is one of three suppliers for Telecom Italia`s experimental system. However, he says, this is a special case, because Telecom Italia will be the only network provider. Among the services providers are Stream and the broadcasting company Rai. q

Adele Hars writes from Paris.

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