Fiber Forces Fibs?

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Verizon is peeved, the Associated Press reports, because its cable competitors are running advertisements across the U.S. that make light of the telecom giant's fiber-optic based FiOS service by pointing out, "We already have a fiber-optic network serving ALL our homes."

True: Comcast, Cablevision, Time Warner, Cox, and Charter all have fiber-optic core networks that extend in most cases to neighborhood head-ends. It's also true that I have champagne running through refrigerator; I just have to pop out the corner store to buy it.

Verizon is building fiber to the home (FTTH), also called fiber to the curb. (Correction: Fiber to the curb brings the connection much closer to a house, but not directly into the home.) They're bringing strands of glass directly to the home, which allows them to run essentially a single physical network, the upper limit of which capacity and throughput is more a factor of how rapidly technology advances, and how their business model allows them to charge.

Running a gigabit per second (Gbps) over FiOS shouldn't be a big deal some day as long as there's content to feed that and the rest of their upstream infrastructure can handle it. A few days ago, Verizon bumped their FiOS speeds up quite a bit, while keeping prices the same or slightly higher.

The cable providers, by contrast, are running fiber to the node (FTTN), which is also AT&T and Qwest's strategy, although the cable companies were in a position to need to run that fiber much earlier to fight erosion of their business. With FTTN, the cable providers were able to offer data combined with on-demand video and an ever-increasing channel line-up.

With FTTN, the local loop is still copper, whether as a pair of wires twisted around each other, or a coaxial cable. In both telecom and cable plants, the figurative "final mile," as it's known, uses an encoding scheme that can push tons of data over short distances.

DSL emerges from the central office of a telephone company and, in some cases, must runs thousands or even 10,000 to 20,000 wire feet--actual passage through wire. That requires a lot of trickery to avoid crosstalk among wires, attenuation (the diminution of a signal the greater it travels through obstructions), and old wiring installations.

If you have to travel just a few hundred feet, those problems tend to disappear as there are fewer bundles of wire, and attenuation is kept to a minimum.

With FTTN, cable and phone companies are kept in check for their top speeds by the latest wire standards. Advanced flavors of DSL are used by telecoms for that final hop to the house, while cable companies use DOCSIS, now in the process of moving to version 3, which promises far greater capacity.

The reason we're not seeing FTTH everywhere is that it's a massively expensive undertaking, and it will take years to see a substantial minority of urban and suburban markets equipped for fiber to their homes. In the meantime, you'll likely continue to see who-has-the-bigger-pipe marketing while companies try to claim some kind of supremacy.

For us as consumers and business users, only four interrelated factors are truly important: is the service competitively priced and getting cheaper? And is it consistent and reliable?

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