Thursday, July 17, 2008

Is The World Going on a High Fiber Diet?

A recent research report shows that around the world, more people are now signing up for fiber optic Internet access than cable broadband. Yours is being installed next week, right?

Don't feel bad. The United States isn't exactly leading the charge in shunning copper in favor of fiber optic delivery. Certainly not in FTTH or fiber to the home service. Verizon's FiOS is about the only game going here. But in China, there are almost 17 million fiber optic service subscribers. We have about 2.6 million to put us in a solid fourth place behind Japan and Korea.

But wasn't satellite communications supposed to be the answer to unlimited worldwide communications? It was back when the space age began and twisted pair & coaxial copper cables were the only game in town. Or under the sea for that matter. Yes, there are low earth orbit (LEO) and geosynchronous satellite communications in place now and you can order satellite broadband any time you want. But it's still a specialized service almost 50 years after AT&T put the first Telstar satellite into orbit.

There are a couple of good reasons for this. Telstar service was only good for about 20 minutes at a time. Then you had to wait a couple of hours for it to come around again. To provide full-time communications, you need a constellation of LEO satellites like the ones used for GPS or Iridium service. With lots of satellites you could have the Internet overhead, but it's costly. Too costly for all those birds to get enough capacity for today's Internet usage.

The same thing is true for geosynchronous satellites, plus one other nagging problem. They're so far out in space that you lose a second or so between transmission, reception and confirmation among locations. That's latency and it's a killer for voice or other real-time two-way services. Latency is unimportant for one way communications such as satellite TV, where geosynchronous satellites have flourished.

Down here on Terra Firma and under the briny depths, it's copper, fiber or wireless. Nothing beats fiber for huge bandwidths at low latency. The fiber itself isn't all that costly, either. It's the installation. That drives most of the telcos nuts, since they spent the last 100 years burying copper. Now they have to go and do the job all over again.

Even so, fiber optic communications is not just the coming thing. It's the going thing right now. Nearly all nationwide and undersea communications is now on fiber. Competitive carriers are getting aggressive about building out points of presence (POPs) to serve business users who need and can afford fiber optic bandwidth levels.

Meanwhile copper is getting a second lease on life as an access technology for both residential and business users. Fiber is brought into the neighborhood and then delivered the last mile or two over conventional twisted pair copper wires. Cable broadband is headed for an upgrade to DOCSIS 3.0 to squeeze more bandwidth from coax as a delivery medium.

Meanwhile, the drumbeat of fiber optic Internet service grows louder and louder. It's just a matter of time now.

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