Cheaper equipment to give fast copper broadband a boost

Vendors like Adtran and Alcatel-Lucent are shrinking their equipment to lower installation costs

Vendors are working on products to lower the cost of building copper-based broadband with bandwidth up to 100M bps, and are at the same time getting ready to increase speeds even further.

The death of copper and the ascent of fiber has long been discussed. However, the cost of rolling out fiber is too high for many operators that instead want to upgrade their existing copper networks. The technology that lets them do that and still offer competitive speeds is VDSL2 with vectoring, which was a hot topic at this week's Broadband World Forum conference in Amsterdam.

Vectoring improves VDSL (Very-high-bit-rate DSL) performance by removing crosstalk interference. It works by continuously analyzing the noise conditions on copper lines, and then creates a new, antinoise signal to cancel it out, much like noise-cancelling headphones. In Amsterdam, discussions centered on cutting the cost of installing vectoring, with products from the likes of equipment manufacturers Adtran and Alcatel-Lucent as well as chip maker Broadcom.

"There is pressure on margins all the way up the supply chain in broadband. One thing commonly expressed [at the conference] was that ISPs have in a way made their own bed in terms of getting consumers used to cheap broadband," said Oliver Johnson, CEO at market research company Point Topic, who attended the conference.

To drive their own costs down, operators are putting pressure on vendors to make equipment more cost effective. Both Adtran and Alcatel-Lucent are making network equipment smaller in order to give operators more flexibility when building their VDSL networks, and in the process lower deployment costs. Alcatel-Lucent's new Micro-nodes are, in addition, also waterproof and fireproof. At Broadband World Forum, Adtran also demonstrated the use of vectoring on a larger scale than was previously possible.

"What we are seeing is people figuring out what they have to do and to an extent how do it, which is why we are seeing these announcements," Johnson said.

But even if vectoring is a significant technical achievement, vendors and operators can't afford to rest on their laurels. Consumer demand for broadband is really taking off, according to Johnson, as consumers choose subscriptions that provide more than 100M bps, the practical limit for VDS 2 with vectoring. The technology that is intended to come to the rescue for providers who want to offer speeds in excess of 100M bps is G.fast, which was also much talked about at Broadband World Forum.

G.fast promises up to 1G bps over existing copper telephone wires, but only over distances up to about 100 meters. The technology is now being designed to work at distances up to 250 meters, and it looks like ITU will have a full set of standards by early next year, according to Johnson.

BT is one of the operators that are currently testing the technology. It is working with Huawei on an early-stage technical trial. The goal is to evaluate G.fast's performance outside a lab environment, it said on Monday.

Last week, the European Commission announced that every European Union household can now get a basic broadband connection, which was the first of three milestones for broadband coverage it has set.

The other two are that all households should by 2020 have access to at least 30M bps and half of all households should be able to get 100M bps or higher. VDSL will be key to reaching those goals, and it will cover 73 percent of European homes by 2020, while Docsis 3 cable will reach 45 percent and fiber only 16 percent, according to Point Topic.

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Mikael Ricknäs

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