FTTP fear factor

FRAMINGHAM (09/18/2003) - Fervor over Fiber to the Premises has the attention of many network executives who, like George Mason University's Randy Anderson, have been locked into reliance on traditional T-1 lines to outfit remote sites with high-speed connectivity.

Of FTTP, Anderson, director of network engineering and technology at the Fairfax, Va., university, says: "We'd love to explore that possibility." He considers FTTP as a potential alternative to DSL, which he hasn't embraced because of its dubious track record on reliability.

FTTP promises better performance and greater speed than DSL, which is delivered to the premises via copper. It will run at 100M bit/sec vs. the 1.5M bit/sec or so DSL hovers around, sources say. For corporations, proponents point to applications such as PC backup, telecommuting and high-definition videoconferencing as ripe for FTTP deployments.

Yet some industry watchers say the buzz surrounding FTTP might be more hot air than substantive network plans. Even Anderson notes that he doesn't anticipate FTTP soon displacing any network connections.

"A lot depends on the carriers getting an effective FTTP strategy and really supporting it," he says. "For businesses, that is really key. They have to be able to get the access and be assured that it will stay up and get fixed if it happens to go down. DSL does not have any of those advantages."

FTTP relies on passive optical network (PON) technology to bring high-speed fiber optic all, or almost all, the way to a remote office, small business or home. It requires carriers to replace antiquated copper with entirely new fiber infrastructure.

While fiber optic is finding its way into carriers' long-haul infrastructures and has heavily penetrated larger metropolitan-area networks (thanks to the efforts of now mostly defunct upstart competitive local exchange carriers) experts say that when it comes to extending fiber to businesses or homes, it is more a case of almost than all the way.

FTTP will change that, says Daniel Briere, CEO of consultancy TeleChoice Inc. "FTTP is the next big push in fiber," he says.

Three of the four regional Bell operating companies - BellSouth Corp., SBC Communications Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. - certainly have indicated as much. In May, they turned FTTP into public network buzz when they announced the adoption of the ITU-T's G.983 standard for ATM PON. Further, the three companies gathered bids in August for the equipment needed to assemble FTTP backbones. Companies are hush on the fine print in that RFP, but industry experts say the carriers are examining offerings from Alcatel, Cisco, Lucent, Nortel and Siemens.

Most consider this heated effort a response to cable operators' formidable campaigns to extend high-speed Internet access to their customer bases. And many see it as less a technology move than a regulatory ploy - and a successful one, given the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's (FCC's) decision in late August to let the RBOCs stop offering discounted line-sharing services to competing ISPs offering residential DSL services. In a preliminary decision in February, the FCC had made it clear it wants to see fiber laid to more homes and businesses in outlying and rural areas, and the RBOCs pushed PON-based FTTP as a cost-effective means of getting that fiber out.

"The RBOCs are in some ways just passively encouraging fiber to the home and fiber to the premises because it makes them look good in front of the FCC. It makes it look like something is really happening here," says Thomas Nolle, president of research firm CIMI Corp.

The RBOCs say otherwise. "We will be ready at the beginning of next year for volume deployments," says Jim Jackson, research director at BellSouth.

Keith Cambron, CEO of SBC Laboratories, describes the likely course of FTTP deployments: "What you will see in 2004 will involve mostly new construction, what we call 'green fields,' and a lot of fiber extended to multiple dwelling units. After that, we will begin what we call 'aerial plant rehabs,' where we will go in and begin replacing copper plants that are 20 years old."

But Gartner predicts that FTTP deployments of any significance will not materialize before 2010. And Nolle dismisses RBOC plans as being limited to the newest suburban communities. "We already have upscale, affluent neighborhoods that are wired with fiber. That is just eye candy, proof-of-concept stuff," he says.

BellSouth has its fiber-to-the-curb (FTTC) initiative, which boasts 1 million lines of fiber to the home; and SBC has dabbled in FTTC in a Mission Bay, Calif., trial, according to a recent Gartner report.

But the carriers insist they also will pursue corporate accounts. BellSouth's Jackson even says, "The most interesting opportunities I see are the ones involving campus environments." He points to Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines as ideal FTTP candidates.

Small businesses situated within or near new suburban communities also could make use of newly available fiber, carrier executives say.

George Mason's Anderson is awaiting word from his carrier, Verizon, for details on when FTTP might be available for the university's use, though he's not interested in a full-scale campus deployment. "This is something that is more suited for remote offices. Our campuses are fully wired," he says. "But the problem is when we move people off site. This area [northern Virginia] is growing so rapidly that we have more and more people stuck out in the boondocks," Anderson continues.

However, given DSL's sub-par showing, CIMI's Nolle and others question whether demand requirements amid businesses or even consumers justify a major push for fiber. Qwest, the RBOC holdout on FTTP, says it isn't registering much demand.A company spokeswoman says the carrier doesn't see enough potential returns on heavy FTTP investments to join in on this latest industry buzz.

Jones is a freelance writer in Vienna, Va. She can be reached at jjwriterva@aol.com.

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