Q: If optical fibre rollouts have by now become inexorable, are operators all employing the same strategy?
Operators are taking a variety of approaches to the transition from ADSL technologies to Next Generation Access (NGA) solutions, depending on their regulatory situation and access to public funding.
Some operators have opted for an end-to-end rollout, bringing fibre into every home and business. Others have elected to push fibre far down the network, but not all the way into user premises, and so employ either copper or coaxial cable technologies in the last mile or final drop.
Technologies are progressing continually, working to make the most of non-fibre networks. DOCSIS 3.1 on coaxial cable and XG.fast on copper systems make it possible to achieve impressive speeds of up to several Gigabits per second.
Those who choose not to install cable often do so in a bid to better control their spending. In environments where competition demands swift deployment, where infrastructure is hard to access or where the regulatory framework does not ensure long-term certainty, it is not hard to understand why operators prefer to opt for an intermediate solution between DSL and all fibre.
But I doubt that these hybrid solutions will be long lasting. Despite the solid performances these new technologies deliver, which allow them to compete with fibre today, they still suffer from several weaknesses: speeds that diminish over the length of the line and non-symmetrical bitrates that penalise uploads. If newcomers to the market are offering customers end-to-end fibre solutions, it is clear that the only way to respond to these new entrants will be to also deploy fibre to the home.
The growing ubiquity of FTTH around the world will pave the way for new services that are made possible by the technology. I’m thinking especially of fibre’s symmetrical bitrates. The fact of having access to virtually unlimited upstream speeds is allowing new uses to develop, for instance those based on cloud infrastructures. Users who feel hampered by overly slow upstream speeds will demand or will switch over to fully fibre solutions.
If deploying a technology that does not employ fibre end-to-end may seem like a smart strategy initially, I fear that it will force some telcos to reinvest earlier than they expected, to “complete” the fibre to the home link, and so lose the benefits of a gradual rollout.
Q: Will customers continue to demand ever faster connections?
That’s a good question.
Here and there we read that there’s no proof that customers will want to have more than one or two video streams.
This issue is almost as old as the internet itself. in the 90s, some were saying that a 28 kbps modem was useless, and later that a 56 kbps one was, and so on over time. Thomas Malthus’s theory continues to apply in the digital world.
In truth, and for as long as the internet has existed, we have always seen uses develop apace with network capacity. Thanks in particular to symmetrical bitrates, the massive increase in capacity delivered by end-to-end fibre networks will make it possible to launch new services that interact with a wide range of devices in the home, and be available to every member of the household simultaneously.
So the hunger for more bandwidth is not going to be quenched anytime soon.
Q: Will 5G have a major impact on FTTH?
I don’t think so.
The only 5G system capable of rivalling FTTH in terms of quality is based on millimetre band frequencies between 26 and 28 GHz. The antennae that make it possible to use these frequencies have a very short range of only several hundred metres.
In urban settings, the housing density makes this technology complicated and not economically sound to deploy, as FTTH would be less expensive.
In rural areas, the antennae’s short range makes it impossible to cover enough households to be cost-effective. In countries where government subsidy schemes are put into place for FTTH rollouts in rural areas, as is the case in France, the model of a 5G system capable of competing with fibre would be even more untenable.
The model of a 5G system that can compete with fibre will only be found in countries with rather particular circumstances. In more semi-urban areas, an operator with a big enough market share and not having to compete with subsidised FTTH operators or operators that are able to pool their infrastructure costs, may have a chance. It is not hard to imagine that this model could develop in some North American markets that have become de facto duopolies.
But I still believe that these situations will remain few and far between.