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

Fibre to the home, the future of broadband

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 US$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 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. 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 322Mbit/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 percent 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.

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Lamont Wood

Computerworld
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