Fiber to the home: 'It's insanely better'

Cable too slow? Try blazing-fast optical fiber.

Some call it fiber to the home (FTTH) or fiber to the premises (FTTP) or fiber to the node (FTTN) or fiber to the curb (FTTC) or fiber to wherever (FTTX).

But Jared Wray, an IT consultant in Seattle, has a simpler description.

"It's insanely better," he said. "I downloaded Microsoft SQL Server Service Pack 1, a 252MB file, in two minutes, 30 seconds. It's to the point where the speed of your throughput is gated by the speed of the remote server, rather than your local interface."

For $40 per month more than he had been paying for a 6Mbit/sec. cable modem connection, he became an early user of an FTTH service from Verizon Communications Inc. called FiOS, with 30Mbit/sec. downstream and 5Mbit/sec. upstream. Instead of a pair of copper wires connecting his house to the telco central office, a fiber-optic strand was laid to his house.

Replacing the backbone

Basically, the phone companies have replaced their backbone networks with fiber, and are, in an increasing number of instances, extending that fiber to individual subscribers, affording them unprecedented data speed, offering exciting possibilities for telecommuters. Indeed, pundits look forward to a day when copper phone wires will be found only in museums, and the availability of enormous amounts of bandwidth will give birth to applications and services currently undreamed of.

As of September, there were 1.01 million FTTX users in North America, said Mike Render, a consultant at RVA Market Research in Tulsa, Okla. That's a major leap from the 332,700 subscribers counted in 2005, or the 146,500 counted in 2004. Almost as interesting to telecom analysts is the number of homes passed (i.e., the necessary fiber has been laid in front of the house.) That number has also ballooned, reaching 6,099,000 in September, up from 2.7 million in 2005 and 970,000 in 2004.

Wray's carrier, Verizon, is the single largest FTTX carrier in North America. Verizon spokesman Mark Marchand in Basking Ridge, N.J., said the telco plans to pass 6 million homes with fiber by the end of this year and will continue to pass 3 million additional homes yearly through at least 2011. By then about half of Verizon's 30 million home market base will have been passed.

"We want to build a network that would not just cover us for the next four or five years, but be future-proof," he said. He noted that reaching higher speeds only requires putting new electronics on either end of the fiber.

Verizon FiOS subscribers are offered downstream speeds of 5, 15, 30 and (in selected markets) 50Mbit/sec., using technology called broadband passive optical network (BPON) with a 622Mbit/sec. channel that is optically split 32 ways. Marchand estimated that the system could support 100M bit/sec. subscriber connections, but that speed is not being marketed yet.

In 80 cities where video franchises have been acquired, Verizon also offers a digital TV network, using an 860M bit/sec. channel on a different frequency, so that the video bandwidth doesn't reduce the available data bandwidth.

As of Aug. 1, 375,000 homes had subscribed to FiOS, said Marchand, who noted that an average of 12% of local broadband users switch to FiOS during its first nine months of availability in a specific market. No sales figures for the related digital TV service were available.

Next year Verizon will switch to Gigabit passive optical network (GPON) for new construction, with a backbone channel of 2.4Gbit/sec. downstream and 1.2Gbit/sec. upstream, Marchand added.

Fiber to the node

But outside Verizon, fiber often means FTTN (fiber to the node,) where fiber is run to a neighborhood interface box, and the subscribers are served from there using repurposed copper wires, usually through high-speed short-range versions of Digital Subscriber Line (DSL). FTTN variants are called active networks, since they rely on active electronics rather than passive fiber.

The most visible FTTN example appears to be AT&T Inc. (formerly SBC Communications Inc.) with its U-verse offering (although, like Verizon, AT&T is laying pure fiber for new housing developments.) Using Very High Speed Digital Subscriber Line (VDSL), customers can receive at least 25M bit/sec., explained AT&T spokesman Wes Warnock in San Antonio. The bandwidth includes a data channel running at 6M bit/sec. downstream, and the rest is devoted to digital TV, and should be enough for four different simultaneous standard TV channels, he said.

Although it's slated to be available in at least 15 cities by year's end, U-verse is currently available only in San Antonio, where subscriber Alan Weinkrantz, a high-tech publicist, said he was less impressed with the higher data speed than with the user interface for the TV system.

"Channels change faster and the interface and user experience is superior -- I enjoy doing my own programming," he said. "I could say that the data is faster by a certain factor, but I don't notice it when I do e-mail."

Among other major carriers, BellSouth Corp. has long practiced FTTC (fiber to the curb), and it's planning high-speed DSL to compete with fiber, with a speed of about 24M bit/sec. And Qwest Communications International Inc. has been installing FTTH in new developments.

Local level

Meanwhile, there is a lot of fiber activity at the local level, with communities not waiting for their telco to lay fiber, or partnering to make sure it happens, especially in upscale housing developments.

An April survey published by the FTTH Council listed 936 U.S. communities that were being served with fiber networks. Of those, 377 were installed by regional Bell operating companies, 270 by other incumbent local exchange carriers, 165 by competitive local exchange carriers (CLEC), 84 by partnerships between developers and CLECs, 30 by municipalities and 10 by public utility districts. Most used passive optical networking.

There's also a lot of activity overseas, noted Jeff Heynen, an analyst at Infonetics Research in Campbell, Calif. In fact, both North America and Europe lag so far behind the Pacific Rim in terms of fiber adoption that they may never catch up, he said. Reliance on high-rise apartments in Asia means that the fiber only has to reach the building to serve multiple subscribers, while in North America and Europe it often has to be laid to each house, he explained.

As a result, there are about 6 million fiber users in Asia, as opposed to 680,000 in Europe and (as stated) about a million in North America, Heynen noted. He predicted the world total will grow to 38 million by 2009.

As for a complete switchover from copper to fiber, "That will take a long time, since there is a big installed base of DSL," Heynen said. And DSL may manage to remain competitive with copper longer than anyone had imagined -- there are already versions that can reach 100M bit/sec., he noted.

Unbeatable speed, theoretically

But eventually, fiber is fated to win any performance wars, since (according to research at Bell Labs done in 2001) the theoretical capacity of a strand of fiber is thought to be 100 trillion bits per second, or a million times faster than the maximum of 100M bit/sec. being contemplated for today's FTTH services.

But fiber will have had a big impact long before that happens. Heynen foresees social networks like MySpace being based on video exchanges, rather than today's text and pictures. When software can be downloaded at speeds approaching local disk access, the use of embedded operating systems and packaged applications may fade away as users switch to thin clients, he predicted.

"By 2010 people will begin creating applications that we have not even thought about today, perhaps involving tele-medicine or tele-health," predicted Elroy Jopling, an analyst at Gartner Inc. "It will be like the old days of the PC -- when the RAM doubled, people found a use for it."

Other benefits can be found in the present, indicated Joe Savage, president of the FTTH Council in Portland, Ore. Surveys of FTTH users show they spend an average of one additional day per month telecommuting, and they feel that the connection increases the market value of their home by 1%, he said.

Also, he lists decisions by various corporations to locate in communities with fiber because they knew the employees could work from home.

Back in Seattle, Wray can hardly contain his enthusiasm for FTTH. "I love it -- it's the greatest thing I've ever had," he concluded.

More information:

Lamont Wood is a freelance writer in San Antonio.

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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