EU operators scale down FTTH plans

Former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once famously remarked that “a week is a long time in politics.” Few would doubt that, but judging from the change in mood between Broadband World Forums (BBWF) 2011 and 2012, if a week is a long time in politics, a year is an eternity in the telecoms market.
You could barely move at BBWF 2011 in Paris without having vendors lauding their fiber technology. The message was pretty clear: Fiber is the future, and copper is on the way out.
Well, fast-forward a year to Amsterdam, and copper was back in the limelight, with vendors being forced to accept the reality that many operators are simply not in the market for network wide FTTH deployments. They don’t have the cash to pay for them and are skeptical of the benefits of rushing to FTTH.
As a result, this year vendors at the conference placed their “copper acceleration” technologies, such as line-bonding, vectoring and, under the spotlight while pushing FTTH technologies to the periphery.
Operators trim ambitions
Many European operator executives at the event spoke of how they had been forced to scale way back on their original bold FTTH-deployment plans, not only because of the deep recession gripping the continent but because they had initially vastly underestimated the cost and time of deploying network wide FTTH.
As a result, many spoke more of a slow and steady FTTH “evolution” than of a fast “revolution” and said that the only way they would realistically be able to migrate to an all-FTTH network would be by gradually deploying FTTH when they could afford to rather than embarking on an aggressive deployment plan.
“We know that we are eventually going to end up at an all-fiber network,” said Wim De Meyer, vice president of network planning at Belgacom,” but the question is really the timeframe. We can’t get there in a couple of years. It’s going to be a long process and could take us thirty or forty years to get there.”
However, European incumbents need to find some way of offering 100-Mbps services in order to fight off the competition from cable MSOs and even “niche” FTTH players that deploy networks in upscale areas.
It is this need for speed (quickly and cost-effectively) that is driving interest in copper-acceleration technologies.
Vectoring was the undoubted star of the show in Amsterdam, with operators such as Belgacom, Telecom Italia, Telecom Luxembourg, Telekom Austria and Telecom Argentina all highlighting their interest in the technology.
Belgacom is working with Alcatel-Lucent to test vectoring and expects to launch field trials in the near future. It says vectoring will enable it to offer non-shared speeds up to 100-Mbps and even offer guaranteed video-grade speeds of 50-Mbps to subscribers.
Belgacom’s De Meyer said that headline speeds, though often irrelevant in service provision, had become more important in the battle against rival cable operators that were heavily promoting their DOCSIS 3.0-powered 100-Mbps services, meaning that Belgacom needed a fast and cost-efficient way of delivering similar-speed services.
Although current vectoring technologies are effective only to about 1-km of the exchange – offering about 80-Mbps – De Meyer said that Belgacom will extend the range of vectoring by deploying “VDSL booster boxes” further into its network.
The core weakness of vectoring remains its relatively short distance of effectiveness. But this is not a significant problem in many European countries, because a substantial number of subscribers’ residences are located relatively close to the cabinet.
Sandro Dionisi, head of Telecom Italia Labs, told delegates that his company had deployed 150,000 street-level cabinets in Italy, meaning that the average distance between its fixed-broadband customers and the cabinet was only 400 meters, enabling Telecom Italia to deploy vectoring highly effectively to the vast majority of its subscribers.
Tony Brown is a senior analyst for broadband and TV at Informa Telecoms and Media. For more information, visit