Copper Is Dead, Right? Not So G.Fast and Furious, My Friend

Erik Keith
Erik Keith

Summary Bullets:

  • Telco copper, much maligned by cable operators and FTTH proponents, may still have a lifespan of another 100 years – to paraphrase the CEO of Australian incumbent operator Telstra – thanks to ongoing technology R&D that will eventually enable multi-gigabit connections over the copper plant.
  •  Fiber-to-the-drop-point (FTTdp) will be a de facto FTTH technology, enabling operators to deliver fiber-speed, ultra-broadband connections by leveraging deep fiber architectures with last-run copper plant, supporting speeds of up to 1 Gbps with G.Fast and 5 Gbps in the not-so-distant future.

American author and humorist Mark Twain once said, “Rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated,” and when it comes to the impending demise of telco copper, Twain’s quote has already been overused (I will be the first to plead guilty). For much of the last decade, the wonders of fiber access, or FTTH, have been touted as the end-all, be-all wireline access technology, with fiber evangelists aggressively lobbying across the planet for the upgrade of telco networks to full-fiber as soon as possible. This includes well-established and respected industry groups such as the various FTTH Councils in Europe, Asia and the Americas, which are the “tip of the spear” for fiber network lobbying, as well as high-profile politicians, most notably Neelie Kroes, the European Union’s Commissioner for Digital Agenda.

There is no question that FTTH is the ultimate fixed access technology, whether GPON, EPON, or active/point-to-point Ethernet (never mind future iterations, e.g., WDM-PON). This is recognized by virtually all operator types, including cable MSOs that currently leverage hybrid fiber-coax (HFC) networks. However, both telcos and cable operators are committed to leveraging their networking assets as long as the competitive landscape – and other key factors such as regulator imperatives – will allow. For cable operators, DOCSIS 3.1, which is designed to deliver 10 Gbps per cable network node downstream (and 1 Gbps upstream), and migration towards Converged Cable Access Platform (CCAP)-based architectures will allow the cable industry to remain extremely competitive despite the shared-bandwidth nature of their networks.

On the telco side, VDSL2 in combination with vectoring technology has paved the way for telcos to deliver “fiber-speed” 100 Mbps services in FTTx architectures. This is a very appealing option for the incumbent operators in the European Union countries, where the EU’s local loop unbundling (LLU) regulations have effectively prevented incumbents from deploying full FTTH networks. The regulations require incumbents to allow rival operators to have access to their fiber plant, dramatically reducing their margins and return on investment (ROI) for a fiber upgrade. VDSL2+ vectoring has thereby “set the stage” for the development of G.Fast, which will provide the next “step level” gain in bandwidth for copper-based networks. Where VDSL2 leverages frequencies of up to 30 MHz to deliver 100 Mbps, G.Fast will utilize even larger frequency range(s), i.e., up to 106 MHz at first, and then up to 212 MHz with a second-generation specification.

While G.Fast is still roughly a year away from standardization, it has already been trialed by several operators in Europe (including Swisscom and BT), and it is expected to be in production, revenue-generating networks by 2017. What is important to remember, however, is that G.Fast is not the “final frontier” for copper. Beyond G.Fast is 5 Gigabit broadband (or “5GBB”), first highlighted by Huawei in Q1 2014, with a roadmap of commercial availability by the end of 2020. 5GBB will leverage even shorter copper loops than G.Fast (50m or less), but by ratcheting up the spectrum once again (this time to 500 and even 800 MHz), operators will be able to deliver up to 5 Gbps (aggregate). So, it appears that copper is not destined for the scrapheap just yet, and it will in fact be with us for at least another century.

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