Cable Ops, Telcos Still Grapple with Architectural Issues

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The debate over which wired delivery mechanism is best comes down to a bake-off between cable operators' hybrid fiber-coaxial coax (HFC) and the phone companies' fiber. The reality is, however, that implementation of each concept differs by company.


The cable industry architecture is a combination of fiber and, closer to customers, coaxial cable. It seems to be the more unified of the two approaches, though some decisions have to be made on a case-by-case basis. Designers and financial planners must determine where in the network to terminate the fiber and switch to coax. Complex formulas are used. The variables include the number of homes served, the number of services and their bandwidth needs, likely growth patterns and the amount of spare bandwidth necessary. Designers are good at constructing systems that can be adjusted as these realities change.


That situation is less complex than that facing the phone companies. These companies must choose between two very different approaches. One, used by Verizon's FiOS project, is the self-explanatory fiber-to-the-home (FTTH). The other, which is employed by AT&T in its U-Verse project architecture, uses copper wires for part of the journey to the home.


Using copper is a greater challenge for the same reason that the phone companies initially needed to deploy fiber in the first place: Copper wires are not ideal for delivering converged services. The approach to expanding their signal-carrying capabilities -- variants of the digital subscriber line family of protocols -- are more of a limiting factor.


In other words, the home coax was never a big drawback for cable operators' convergence efforts. The challenge was finding a reliable way to send enough bandwidth through its network to feed those big pipes. The cable guys spent billions of dollars answering that challenge. Conversely, the telcos' weakness was a bigger problem because it reared its head in each premise and couldn't be met out in the network. The copper still can be used, but experts see trade offs when financial realities mandate that this be done.


A couple of interesting pieces were posted recently that touch on phone company approaches to convergence. This Seeking Alpha piece by Andrew Schmidtt is aimed at folks who deal with fiber questions on a regular basis. Its value for a more general audience is that it illustrates how unsettled the debates still are on basic approaches to fiber. Perhaps more importantly, Schmidtt provides a taste of where things stand in the U.S., Europe, China, Taiwan, Japan and Korea.


Another interesting piece was posted by Om Malik at GigaOm. He writes bout the small nation of Slovenia. The country's incumbent phone company, Telekom Slovenije, is involved in a deep FTTH buildout that will bring fiber to as many as 1.3 million homes by the end of the year and 10 million by 2012. That's a lot of homes for such a small nation.


The debate -- cable versus telco and telco versus telco -- will not abate. The good news is that since it is running in parallel; the bottom line more likely will be to please customers, not financial analysts or CFOs.