Bringing optical fiber to customers is no longer an extravagant fantasy, as it appeared just a few years ago. Today a vast number of access networks are being deployed in fiber, everywhere in the world. Therefore, does this mean Next Generation Fixed Access equals FTTx? Probably yes, but do not underestimate the “x”
The “x” opens a vast word of terminologies, with radically different business cases and very diverse technological challenges. Whereas the general category of fiber in the access network is commonly referred to the term FTTx, or Fiber to the “x”, the x can refer to, among other options, the remote node (FTTN), the last amplifier (FTTLA), the curb (FTTC), the cabinet (FTTCab), the distribution point (FTTdp), the basement (FTTB), the individual premises (FTTP), the residence or business itself (FTTH), or even the desktop (FTTD). And do not forget fiber-to-the-telecom-enclosure (FTTE) or fiber-to-the-zone (FTTZ), obviously…
CHOOSING THE RIGHT “X”
What is put in the “x” is a key variable in determining costs and strategy of operators’ fiber access approach, both in the short and in the long term. For this reason, choosing the right “x” is a strategic but not easy task. As a matter of fact, there are many different approaches used by operators and evangelized by technology vendors, both too often laced with bias on what they’ve done in their own network, or what they have in their product portfolio, respectively.
Even though incumbent operators have decades of experience in managing telecommunications networks and have already deployed fiber in their core or backbone networks, most of them have never deployed fiber on the scale required in the access network. Therefore, the evolution to Next Generation Access requires operators to support technologies never used before and require significant changes in business processes and customer relationships, for effectively coping with the needed very large investment.
One of the most important factors influencing the “x” decision, and one that varies significantly across operators and markets is, in fact, the availability of appropriate capital. While the creation of a new broadband infrastructure, with the fundamental advantages offered by fiber architectures, can certainly provide a step forward in competitiveness to an operator or community, it poses very high demand of capital. Therefore, both customers’ demand for bandwidth, market competition, network cost pressure, and limitations of the most advanced copper-based technologies, must be evaluated, in comparison with the comparative costs of the different architectures of fiber access networks.
In those cases where an appropriate capital is not available, and/or where the business case does not justify the fiber investment, it may be appropriate a choice of Passive Optical Networks, with usage of copper in the “last mile” via VDSL2 (FTTB/FTTCab+VDSL2), or even making the best of available copper exclusively, but moving to ADSL2+ bonding for higher bandwidth services (FTTN+ADSL2+). In other cases, FTTN is currently used by a number of multiple-service operators to deliver advanced triple-play services to consumers and it is considered as an interim step towards full FTTH.
Conversely, if capital investment are viable and justified by the business case, a focus on both business and residential subscribers may drive network design towards FTTH point-to-point Ethernet approach, given the much higher bandwidth available immediately. This is especially true in urban areas. The same applies for markets where public policy dictates supporting full FTTH architectures for new constructions, or where copper is not available in the “last mile”, making the otherwise attractive FTTB/FTTCab+VDSL2 approach not an option.
GEOGRAPHICAL DISTRIBUTION OF THE “X” (2014)
Taking a global view, FTTH/B is today the leading ultrafast broadband solution deployed worldwide, far more utilized than FTTLA and VDSL2. FTTH/B represents in fact 66% of FTTx subscriptions at mid 2014, compared to 22% for FTTLA and 12% for FTTCab+VDSL2. Nevertheless, analyzing the FTTx networks deployed in different part of the world, a very heterogeneous breakdown can be found, where:
§ in APAC, FTTH/B is clearly the technology of choice
§ in North Europe and North America, FTTLA is leading the broadband market
§ for several European incumbents, VDSL2 is often the technology of choice
§ in Latin America and Middle East, countries are still at the beginning of their next generation access network rollouts (they will likely participate to the global growth of ultrafast broadband in the coming years).
In addition, in Europe there are still questions from large players regarding the opportunity to deploy FTTH/B or VDSL2, as several parameters are to be taken into account, among these, the required investment. For this reason:
§ FTTH/B rollouts progressed in certain European countries, despite EU Telcos seeing their margins progressively shrinking.
§ Other markets and players are instead betting on the future capacities of copper based networks.
THERE IS NO ALL-SEASONS “X”
To sum-up, the best “x” in your FTT network depends on many factors, and there is not a single all-seasons approach for fiber access architectures. Among other dimensions, for instance, the “x” and its investment vary considerably depending on the geography being served. Sparsely populated rural areas, for instance, are the most expensive to connect because of the long distances among different customer premises.
Therefore, we think that the right choice for an operator tends to include more than one “FTTx” architecture. Different customer segments with different requirements and different initial conditions (primarily in terms of network assets already in the ground or in the buildings) make different solutions preferred, resulting in the overall best solution to be a mix of architectures. An example is provided by Italy, where main players are deploying a mix of FTTH / FTTCab in order to provide “ultra broadband” services to their customers.