Copper plant remains relevant in an FTTx environment

Fiber-to-the-building (be it a home, commercial or institutional building) is a growing market.

Sep 1st, 2012

From the September, 2012 Issue of Cabling Installation & Maintenance Magazine

Twisted-pair infrastructure remains a revenue generator for service providers, and technology evolves to increase deployment efficiency.

By Patrick McLaughlin

Fiber-to-the-building (be it a home, commercial or institutional building) is a growing market. In fact, earlier this year the Fiber To The Home Council (www.ftthcouncil.org) reported, via RVA Market Research and Consulting (www.rvallc.com) that in North America alone approximately 22.6 million homes have been passed by fiber and 8 million homes have been connected with fiber-optic infrastructure. In the same report, 47 percent of current fiber-to-the-home providers report they are “very likely” to continue fiber-to-the-home deployment past 2012 and another 28 percent report that all potential customers in their markets either have been reached with fiber or soon will be.

Despite these numbers and an abundance of discussion and media coverage of service-provider FTTx programs, the reality remains that for a majority of residential and commercial users, the literal, physical-layer link to the outside world is copper-based. As part of its Broadband Customer Premises Equipment research service, ABI Research (www.abiresearch.com) recently remarked, “Copper networks continue to be the cash cow for telephone companies delivering broadband over DSL [Digital Subscriber Line] to more than 367 million subscribers worldwide in 2011.”

Importantly, numbers coming from the Fiber To The Home Council and RVA incorporate service providers of all types, including cable multiple system operators (MSOs), municipalities, electric utilities and others; ABI’s research, and much of what will be discussed in this article, relate more specifically to telephone/telecommunications service providers (telcos).

Fiber dream, copper reality

In its analysis, ABI continued, “Fiber-to-the-home technologies bring ten times the bandwidth compared to advanced DSL technologies. However, upgrades to advanced forms of DSL require a fraction of the investment of upgrades to FTTH.”

ABI’s senior analyst of television and video, Adarsh Krishnan, studies the technology globally. He commented, “Financial instability in the advanced economies of Western Europe and a lack of innovative internet video services force telcos to look into the cost-to-value proposition delivered by making large-scale investments into FTTH.”

ABI’s assessment of the situation for telcos is that they face a financial dilemma in choosing fiber-to-the-premises over existing DSL technology, for the reasons just outlined and others. “Innovative internet video services including IPTV and OTT [over the top] (at HD resolutions) give telcos the necessary competitive edge for triple play (telephone, internet and TV) and quad play (telephone, internet, TV and mobile phone) services that have been lacking against competing cable operators,” the research firm explains. “Even in the absence of fiber upgrades telcos can compete with triple-play services. Global revenues from DSL broadband services have seen incremental growth in service revenue to reach $106 billion with a compound annual growth rate of 14 percent in the last five years up until 2011. Asia-Pacific continued to be a critical growth region for DSL broadband with China playing a dominant role accounting for 33 percent of the worldwide subscribers in 2011.”

As ABI’s research highlights, even while telcos place fiber-optic infrastructure farther and farther into a network (and therefore, closer and closer to users), they also continually carry out the plan/design/install/maintain/refurbish cycle for their twisted-pair copper-based infrastructures. In fact, the placement of fiber within a certain distance of a user building often prompts the deployment of a copper cabling from that point to the users.

Copper advancements

J.F. Klein, business development manager in 3M’s communication markets division (www.3m.com/telecom), said that globally, “The number of DSL ports installed today versus the number of fiber ports is at 80:20. In the United States alone, this year 8 million DSLAM [DSL access multiplexer] ports will be installed.”

Klein authored a business white paper that details how the use of a certain splitter technology—available from 3M—essentially halves the infrastructure-material requirement of new DSL rollouts. The Integrated Splitter Block is “the core of the preferred deployment architecture to help reduce complexity and overall cost of deploying xDSL with DSLAMs and MSANs [multiservice access nodes]/BBDLCs [broadband digital loop carriers] equipment in central offices and remote terminals,” according to 3M. The company professes both cost and installation savings through the use of these integrated splitter blocks.

Klein explained, “Commonly, deploying a DSLAM requires round-trip cabling between the existing cabling plant and the DSLAM to be deployed.” These deployments typically require long lengths of copper cable as well as other infrastructure such as terminal blocks, connectors, patch cables and raceway. Installation labor also is a significant factor in deployment cost. An integrated splitter block incorporates both the plain old telephone service (POTS) splitter and the DSL splitter functions into a single device. By using these devices, “You need 50 percent less cable and therefore less labor,” Klein noted. In addition to the equipment-and-labor savings achieved using this new technology, Klein says, other benefits may exist depending on the DSLAM vendor. For example, “Commonly used DSLAMs in North America often come with a splitter shelf—a metal rack that goes into the DSLAM rack,” Klein explained. “Using a splitter block eliminates the need for the splitter shelf.

Another DSLAM provider has “on-board splitters,” Klein said, “which are splitters inside the DSLAM. They will be able to remove the splitter from the DSLAM, thereby expanding the port count for a DSLAM rack. That can generate significant cost savings. For example, a cabinet that accommodates 192 customers can now accommodate 384 in the same space.”

London spat

A recent news anecdote out of London, England punctuates the fiber dream and copper reality for many municipalities. In May, London’s City A.M. news outlet reported that upscale boroughs Kensington and Chelsea had rejected plans for BT to install fiber-to-the-cabinet infrastructure, apparently because of how unsightly the cabinets would be along the streets of their affluent neighborhoods.

According to the report, BT planned to install 108 cabinets along the street, but the boroughs’ council “rejected 96 of the proposals as part of its drive to de-clutter the streets.” The two sides traded verbal barbs when a BT spokesman told City A.M. reporter Steve Dinneen that the two boroughs could end up being “an island of slow connectivity … a desert of 20th century technology in a 21st century city.”

A spokesman for the two boroughs countered: “BT has not worked in the spirit of cooperation and needs to consider our historic streetscape. Perhaps one of its competitors will step into this role.”

When we initially reported this story on our blog, a commenter rightly pointed out that we used the term “fiber cabinets” in the story and he deemed that term a misrepresentation. “The network being discussed in this article employs UTP in the distribution plant, thus necessitating cabinets to house xDSL gear, not fiber.” He also noted, “Does the FiOS network suffer such misrepresentation? Certainly not, because it takes fiber to the end point.” The commenter suggested an apt title for the report could be: “Legacy copper skates at fiber’s expense.”

Clearly, advocates of fiber-to-the-building remain faithful to their cause. In the meantime, telcos continue to deal with heterogeneous cabling plants and strive to make fiber-to-copper handoffs as efficient as possible. ::

Patrick McLaughlin is our chief editor..

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