IN THE LOOP: Opportunities taken and missed
The amount of fiber that needs to be incorporated into communications systems seems to be a point of great debate. If you are talking to representatives of the cable industry, fiber optic cabling is certainly a key element. However, they continue to remain hard and fast in their opinion that coaxial cable will always be able to handle the last mile. They point out that advances in bandwidth compression techniques and switched digital broadcast technology, as well as innovations like DOCSIS 3.0, will mean that they will never have to bring fiber optics all the way to the premises.
Similarly, some members of the telco industry indicate that it is important to bring fiber optics to the curb, but the last several 100 feet need only be traditional twisted pair copper plant. They again cite advances in bandwidth compression and digital subscriber line (DSL) technology, as well as sophisticated switching systems that enable subscribers to directly interact with host servers, that they believe will enable them to continually provide a wealth of advanced services to the consumer.
Other telcos, notably Verizon, believe that bringing fiber optics all the way to the premises (FTTP) is critical to being positioned to offer whatever services and applications are needed well into the future. From a competitive perspective, if whatever you can do with metallic wire-based technologies, you can also do with just one color of light, then they may have made the ultimate “leap frog” over competing delivery systems.
Added to this, backbone carriers such as Level 3 are experiencing a resurgence in the need for all that fiber infrastructure that until recently was termed as “terminally” excess capacity. Bandwidth-hungry applications such as YouTube have increased the need for a great amount of that capacity.
It is important to note that many around the world are choosing FTTP when it comes to investment in wireline infrastructure. For example, in some Asian countries where the population density in many areas makes the economics of any wireline build very viable, FTTP is the current medium of choice. In some funding-rich Middle Eastern states, cities and additions to cities that are being built from scratch have fiber running through every end point on the communications system.
Understanding that economic development now depends on competing on a global scale, many local governments that are not being pursued for a FIOS-type build are looking at ways to invest or spur investment in fiber optic infrastructure within their jurisdictions. Some have formed a regional, multi-jurisdictional authority that pools resources in order to fund development of such infrastructure. Perhaps the most well-known is UTOPIA (Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency), which embarked on a multimillion-dollar public works project to install fiber optic infrastructure that will help ensure that its member jurisdictions are not left behind when it comes to access to a high-capacity telecom system. UTOPIA noted that they sought to first have incumbent carriers develop such an architecture, and when they didn’t step up to the plate, the jurisdictions moved to build it themselves. They also note that UTOPIA is an open platform and that its chief design is to make it easier for multiple commercial providers to provide high-capacity services to the businesses and residents of the member jurisdictions.
The UTOPIA project is beginning to bear fruit in this regard.Although the costs for developing FTTP builds continue to come down as demand for this type of system increases, the high cost of initial construction is what is hindering many jurisdictions that have looked at municipal FTTP builds from moving forward. To help counteract this, one idea that has recently gained more traction, is a requirement for any underground project in the right-of-way (ROW), whether it be new conduit installation for commercial providers or a public works project, to include the placement of a significant amount of excess conduit so that FTTP builds will be able to proceed in the future at a much lower cost than currently projected. Indeed, cities that have been at this for a while, like Boston, have found such infrastructure not only reduces the amount of disturbance in the ROW related to new utility installation and speeds the implementation of new infrastructure, but also enables more cost-effective building of advanced communications systems. In fact, Boston’s developing non-profit-oriented wireless system will use city-specified conduit already in the ground to install a portion of the optical backbone needed for the wireless access points.
As the race to provide “triple play” services to consumers accelerates, an old Amish phrase comes to mind: “the hurrieder I go, the behinder I get.” In other words, pursuing concepts that will more quickly bring a wealth of video, voice and data services to consumers, but which don’t focus on FTTP, may be all well and good in the short term. However, in the long term, we may fall farther behind our global neighbors who are taking opportunities to install FTTP today.