It will take decades to replace the copper network with an optical fiber-based infrastructure. But some approaches are closing the last-mile gap, and they will bring optical fiber closer to end users.
Jim Lawrence, program director for the Pittsburgh, PA.-based Stratecast Partners' Convergence Strategies & Network Architectures (www.stratecast.com), argues that the shift to a larger optical fiber network will necessarily be a gradual one. "You have a lot of industry hype where people break the bottleneck by smashing it, and it's an inappropriate metaphor," says Lawrence. "The way the bottleneck is overcome is you slowly grow out of it with more and more broadband access deployed."
That shift in the business model is pondered in Stratecast's recent report, Fiber Networks and Optical Services. Lawrence points out that during the 1990s, optical fiber was deployed in successive steps from the long-haul network. Now, carriers are going beyond the metro core network to deploy competitive optical fiber in the access segment.
But still, Lawrence observes, the existing local telephone infrastructure is still 90% copper on a route mile basis. Less than 10% of the commercial locations in the United States are directly connected to fiber. And since there are more than 6.5 million kilometers of cable strung in the telephone network, it would take a long time and be very problematic to replace them.
"There is so much of it. Look at how much cable there is in the existing telephone market," Lawrence says. "We're talking about going down every road and every street with new cables, so it would take a long time to do that. It's gradually getting closer to the end users, but it's still a major gap."
In one attempt to close the gap, telephone companies are shortening their copper loops by deploying more fiber closer to customers. "There are a variety of new competitors coming to the market that want to go beyond the long-haul and metro fiber deployment," says Lawrence. "They are developing it specifically for access."
But still, Lawrence admits that incumbent carriers are not in a hurry to change this situation. He says they are not motivated by regulations. In fact, he says the only thing that will most likely pressure them to add more optical fiber is competition from cable companies.