Fibre is the ultimate last mile, but case for alternatives getting stronger

Monday 27 June 2016 | 15:24 CET | Background
Copper and coax are the current standards for the 'last mile', with fibre seen as the ultimate replacement. But wireless is increasingly a viable alternative, both mobile technology and Wi-Fi variants. The choice of technology depends on the market conditions, business case and underlying vision of the operator's management. In many cases, the short term may predominate, as management faces pressure to deliver for investors (and meet incentive targets). In terms of costs, the technology decision weighs in the short term on capex (rolling out fibre is expensive), while over the long term it can affect operating costs (maintaining newer technologies like FTTH can be much cheaper). 

The NBN in Australia is a good example of this debate. When it was first designed, National Broadband Network was based on FTTH. A change in government meant copper and coax were given a bigger role, and another new election could mean a u-turn again. Mike Quigley, who helped with the original network design, has said he's very disappointed with the decision to rely more on copper and coax. This short-sighted decision will lead to higher costs and lower network performance. "To spend billions of dollars to build a major piece of national infrastructure that just about meets demand today but doesn’t allow for any significant growth in that demand over the next 10 or 20 years is incredibly shortsighted. (...) It is such a pity that so much time and effort has been spent on trying to discredit and destroy the original (fibre-to-the-premises)-based NBN plan."

FTTH alternatives

Even the original NBN though did not rely entirely on FTTH. Other technologies, such as wireless and satellite, will be used for covering sparsely populated areas. Alternatives to FTTH are also possible for other areas, not just rural localties. Competing technologies are increasingly robust and challenging FTTH's position as the ultimate in last-mile provision. 

Below a short overview of the choices other than FTTH:

  • Copper technology. FTTC (cabinet), FTTN (node), FTTB (building) or FTTdp (distribution point) in combination with VDSL and associated techniques such as vectoring and G.fast. ADSL is clearly on the way out; Belgian operator Proximus is already working on a phase-out.
  • Coax. The concept is not much different from above. Networks are becoming 'fibre deep' (FTTC or FTTB), alongside the roll-out of coax technologies such as Docsis 3.0 and 3.1.
  • Mobile. 4G at the moment (LTE and upgrades such as LTE-Advanced and LTE-Advanced-Pro) and within a few years 5G.
  • Wi-Fi variants. Point-to-point wireless.
Some examples of how the above technologies are being used:
  • Copper technologies. This is the first choice for many PTTs, such as Deutsche Telekom, Proximus, BT and KPN. This is not to say they have ruled out FTTH; many are also deploying FTTH in certain areas when local market conditions make it affordable. Proximus is using fibre for the business market (FTTO, GPON) and sees synergies with its FTTC network for the consumer market by using the same assets on the back end. 
  • Coax. The big cable operators have rejected FTTH for the moment (in favour of FTTC, FTTB), while a few smaller players (such as CIF and SKV in the Netherlands) are choosing to migrate to FTTH. Proximus is notably thinking of using coax networks in areas where its network doesn't (affordably) reach.
  • Mobile. The technology has long been considered a possible replacement for fixed networks, but it seems the realisation is increasingly pushed to the next generation of mobile technology. While LTE has had some success as a fixed broadband service in countries with limited existing fixed infrastructure (such as eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East), more developed fixed markets are focusing on 5G, which offers much greater capacity and lower latency.
  • Wi-Fi. We have seen various small-scale deployments of wireless, such as Greenet, Delta and SKV in the Netherlands. Google Fiber is also turning to point-to-point wireless to help offset the high costs of collecting apartments in city centres; most recently it acquired the company Webpass, which uses this technique in five markets in the US.

A number of operators have also launched hybrid solutions in the past year, using LTE to help boost (weak) DSL connections. Deutsche Telekom (Magenta Zuhause Hybrid), SwisscomOrange France and Proximus are among the operators trying this.

10 Gbps

The case for alternatives to FTTH is becoming stronger. Copper has traditionally had problems delivering the promised maximum speeds, but by bringing the fibre network endpoint increasingly closer to the customer, the difference in real and promised speeds is narrowing. At the same time, new VDSL techniques are highly dependent on distance, offsetting some of the benefits of fibre deeper in the network. This has resulted in new developments such as Long Reach VDSL and underlined further the need for FTTB and FTTdp.

The only option left for the FTTH sector is to make the step from 1 Gbps to 10 Gbps, something already underway. The demand side is also helping, with developments such as the launch of 4K/UHD, which needs at least 25 Mbps for streaming. It's not a coincidence that Akamai, in its regular State of the Internet reports, started measuring last year how many connections can deliver at least 25 Mbps (which is now the official definition of broadband in the US, a minimum 25 Mbps). Countries such as South Korea, Japan and the Nordics are already doing very well in this area. 

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