Fiber and Copper Will Cooperate, Compete

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This comprehensive and readable summary at Converge! Network Digest, written by Ikanos' vice president of marketing for the access products group, summarizes the physical layer networking landscape. On one level, it is a story of the competition between copper and fiber. There is little doubt that fiber eventually will predominate, since it offers far more capacity. The big drawback is cost, and this problem will fade as technology evolves and demand grows.


In reality, however, fiber and copper will coexist and even complement each other for years into the future. Copper, using various gradations of the very high bitrate digital subscriber line (VDSL) protocol, is a viable and widely deployed access technology. Copper also doesn't wear out. So the transition will be a long one, and hybrid fiber/copper systems, such as AT&T's U-Verse, will be with us for the foreseeable future.


The writer does a good job of sorting through the various types of fiber and copper approaches. The heart of the piece is a chart that lays out the attributes of Ethernet passive optional network and Gigabit passive optical network (EPON and GPON), VDSL and asymmetrical digital subscriber line (ADSL) technology, and the variations within each group.


Asia has always been an active fiber region. Last week, ABI Research announced a study that concluded that different markets in Asia are at very different stages of development. Twenty-one percent of broadband subscribers in Hong Kong, ABI concludes, are FTTH customers. Japan and South Korea also are highly penetrated.


The other side of the scale are China and India, which to date haven't deployed a lot of FTTH. ABI says broadband penetration in the Asia-Pacific region is low compared to the rest of the world due to the cost of consumer premise equipment (CPE) and infrastructure costs. The key will be development of attractive and affordable multimedia offerings, the release says. IPTV, the firm believes, will drive the use of FTTH.


A snapshot of the Japanese market was released in December by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. It said that as of September, the nation's service providers had about 10.5 million FTTH subscribers. That's more than one-third of the nation's approximately 27.8 million broadband subscribers. DSL accounted for 13.7 million subscribers, edging out the 12.4 million subscribers who got their broadband service via fixed wireless access. Cable modems brought up the rear with 3.7 million subscribers.


Two reports by Infonetics released in December showed that FTTH is growing. One looks at PON and FTTH equipment sales. It says sales in the category -- which includes BPON, EPON and GPON -- grew 8 percent in the third quarter of 2007 compared to the previous quarter. The release says significant growth is expected in subsequent quarters as incumbents begin rolling out services. The report says FTTH equipment sales rose 21 percent.


The other report focused on PON equipment in the Asia Pacific region. The firm says EPON deployments in Japan and rollouts in Korea, China and India likely led to a jump in revenue of 50 percent between 2006 and last year. PON optical line termination and optical network termination (OLT and ONT) ports shipments reached 3.1 million in 2006 and are expected to more than double by 2010.


Fiber is the more elegant of options, but it costs more. As vendors drive prices down -- as, for instance, Freescale Semiconductor and OpenCon say they have done with the introduction of what they call the only voice-enabled GPN system on a chip -- fiber will move more deeply into more networks. This won't happen overnight, however, and copper infrastructure will remain a vital element of network infrastructure for years to come.