To survive and succeed, telecommunications service providers must deliver a competitive response to the growing demand for ultra-broadband services. With the right mix of copper and fiber access technologies, service providers can rapidly deliver the higher speeds everyone wants at the lowest possible cost.
Bringing more bandwidth to more people
Demand for ultra-broadband is surging. Consumers want faster broadband connections that can support HD video, cloud services and a rich application experience. Businesses want higher upload and download speeds for bandwidth-intensive services like cloud computing and video conferencing. Governments are setting targets that will bring universal access and high-speed broadband for social and economic welfare. As a result, service providers are working to bring more bandwidth to more people.
But traditional service providers aren’t the only ones vying for a bigger role in the ultra-broadband market. New entrants want to capture market share with consumer and business offers. Gigabit communities, like the one offered by EPB in Chattanooga, Tennessee, are springing up across the United States. Internet giant Google is creating its own stir by promising gigabit speeds to select US cities. These offers demand a competitive and forward-looking response from service providers.
Copper, fiber or both?
Fiber to the home (FTTH) is the ultimate goal for many service providers. It’s recognized as the best — and, operationally, the most economical — means to deliver on national broadband targets and serve the growing demand for high-speed data. But it takes considerable time and money to deploy a nationwide fiber network. According to Heavy Reading, it takes 10 years to cover 50% of a country with FTTH. No service provider can afford to wait a decade to roll out higher speeds.
There’s no universal approach for bringing ultra-broadband to the masses. For service providers, the key is to find a mix of technologies that can deliver fast broadband, a faster time to market and the fastest possible return on investment (ROI). For most, this means getting more speed out of existing copper deployments now while continuing to roll out FTTH where it makes economic sense (Figure 1). Fiber needs to be deployed in both cases. But how much, and at what cost? The answers could vary widely for each service provider.
Finding the right technology mix
Technologies like vectoring and bonding can help service providers use existing copper assets to achieve bit rates of 100 Mbps and higher — enough to satisfy video-hungry consumers and meet national broadband targets. FTTH deployments can remove current speed limitations and boost broadband connections beyond 1 Gbps. Both technologies have a role to play, but it’s the mix that matters: The right combination of copper and fiber will allow service providers to meet the need for speed while keeping costs in check.
Increasing copper performance VDSL2 has the potential to deliver more than 100 Mbps to every subscriber. However, VDSL2 is prone to performance degradation caused by interference between the copper lines in a cable.
Vectoring technology cancels this interference, allowing each line to operate at a predictably high bit rate at any given loop length (Figure 2). It adds value to copper by enabling service providers to use their existing networks to deliver a more compelling and competitive broadband experience. By combining vectoring and bonding technologies, service providers can nearly double these bit rates or extend the reach of their service offerings.
G.fast is an emerging technology that promises to deliver aggregate bit rates in excess of 1 Gbps over very short distances. Because it requires short loop lengths, G.fast demands that service providers extend fiber to within 250 m of the subscriber. Alcatel-Lucent trials have shown that G.fast is even more susceptible to crosstalk than VDSL2. Service providers will also need to use vectoring to ensure that G.fast can perform up to potential in cases where multiple G.fast lines operate within the same copper cable.
Deploying fiber to the home FTTH offers limitless bandwidth potential and reduced operational cost compared to copper. It will play a crucial role in every service provider’s network evolution strategy. The path to ultra-fast broadband must include ultra-high-capacity fiber access nodes. To deliver a premium fiber experience, service providers need nodes with non-blocking line cards and controllers and a backplane with sufficient capacity to link everything together.
Service providers also need to select the fiber technology that best suits their needs. The choice between point-to-point (P2P) and passive optical networking (PON) technologies will significantly impact outside plant topology. Technologies such as Gigabit PON (GPON) already provide sufficient bandwidth for the most aggressive forecasts and targets. Today, with all fiber technologies supported from a single platform, service providers can choose from P2P, GPON, Ethernet PON (EPON), 10G-EPON and, once the next-generation PON (NG-PON2) standard is implemented, time- and wavelength-division multiplexed PON (TWDM-PON). Continued innovation in FTTH technologies will produce returns on fiber infrastructure investments for many years to come
Blurring the line between copper and fiber Micro-nodes are the missing link between FTTH and fiber to the node (FTTN). They provide a cost-efficient solution for ultra-broadband in locations where other options simply aren’t economical. FTTH requires service providers to enter the home, which can be expensive and time consuming. And VDSL2 cabinets with vectoring become costly if they are used to serve a small pocket of users.
Small and unobtrusive, micro-nodes can be fixed on walls or poles, or in cellars, sewers, or any other “fiber to the distribution point” (FTTdp) location that is conveniently close to the end user and cost effective for the service provider. Micro-nodes use VDSL2 vectoring to deliver ultra-fast broadband speeds up to 100 Mbps and beyond.
For fiber operators, micro-nodes are simply a new ONT type that will allow them to reach particularly difficult subscriber locations. For traditional copper operators, micro-nodes offer a new opportunity to increase bit rates (Figure 3).
The importance of converged solutions
To stay ahead of the broadband curve, service providers need solutions that can support any access technology. A converged solution will allow providers to get the right technology mix from the start and adapt it as their needs evolve.
For example, a converged solution could help a small service provider succeed with broadband services in both urban and rural areas. The provider may need the flexibility to use different mixes of technologies for the two markets. This flexibility would allow it to capture the most revenue where demand and competition are strong while continuing to provide compelling services to all subscribers.
A converged access solution will allow the service provider to deploy one platform to address the needs and demands of the two different markets. This platform will give the service provider the flexibility to support DSL, POTS, P2P and PON. It will also allow the provider to save by consolidating its qualifying, testing and sparing efforts, and adopting a simplified approach to network integration and management.
Achieving operational excellence
Having the best converged solution is no guarantee of operational excellence. To deliver standout broadband experiences, service providers need solutions that can help them analyze, troubleshoot and run their networks. The right solutions will protect networks and revenues and reduce OPEX by resolving problems quickly and cost effectively.
For copper access lines, must-have network analysis capabilities include line testing, diagnostics, and network optimization with Dynamic Line Management (DLM). These capabilities will enable operators to deliver the quality and stability required for ultra-broadband services. For vectored lines, it’s essential to have solutions that troubleshoot the entire binder. Crosstalk mapping tools can identify which lines are the biggest disturbers and give support staff the information they need to isolate problems. Upgrade predictors can give service providers a clear picture of the performance gains that they can expect if they upgrade to vectoring. Figure 4 highlights the key benefits of combining network analysis with vectoring.
When it comes to fiber access lines, service providers need tools that can speed activation, assess network performance and pinpoint faults in the fiber infrastructure. Comprehensive PON and optical link monitoring can provide insights into equipment performance, subscriber impact and faults at each phase of the fiber lifecycle. And now, with Optical Time Domain Reflectometry (OTDR) integrated into GPON OLTs, service providers have a cost-effective and accurate tool for real-time network monitoring and troubleshooting. When coupled with sophisticated diagnostic tools, an integrated OTDR solution can provide a comprehensive anytime analysis of the network state.
Ultimately, the network is only as good as the service provider’s ability to use it. Often overlooked, the element management system (EMS) plays a critical role in ensuring operational efficiency. Every EMS addresses basic needs relative to configuration, maintenance and troubleshooting. But many fall short on usability and scalability. Highly intuitive graphical user interfaces can help streamline operations. Advanced productivity tools can dramatically lower operating expenditures (OPEX), speed configuration and reduce service delivery time. Last but not least, seamless integration into existing OSS environments can guarantee support of critical operational processes.
Staying ahead of the curve
It’s up to service providers to choose solutions that can address their customers’ demands and support their fiber strategies for the future. By starting with the capabilities they need now and building on their strengths, service providers can stay ahead of the curve and capitalize on the transformative power of ultra-broadband. To contact the author or request additional information, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
-  Finnie, Graham. “Copper: Still a Precious Metal?” Heavy Reading, May 2010.