Friday, February 12, 2010

The Fiber Gold Rush Is On

We’ve known for some time that ultimately we’d need to move from copper wires to fiber optic strands to get the bandwidth we’ll need as technology advances. Internet service providers, Cable TV companies, medical centers, telephone switching offices and major corporations have gradually embraced this move over the last couple of decades. New services, such as Metro Ethernet, have made fiber optic connections affordable for even mid-size companies. Small businesses and consumers are now getting their turn.

The road to riches may be paved with fiber this time.Indeed, there has been one company that saw the light, so to speak, on fiber to the home and made the commitment to build out the infrastructure. That’s Verizon. Their FiOS passive optical fiber service has been moving into one community after another as a replacement for DSL, Satellite, and Cable. You can get bundles of phone, Internet and TV. Or, you can just get really fast Internet service at up to 50 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload.

Did I say really fast internet service? Most people are getting somewhere between 3 and 10 Mbps broadband via DSL, Cable or wireless. But DOCSIS 3.0 is being rolled out on Comcast and other cable systems with 50 Mbps service offerings to rival fiber. The next tier will be 100 Mbps for those who can and will pay for it. DSL over copper telephone wire is going to struggle as the bandwidth wars speed past 100 Mbps. But there’s a new service on the horizon that will blow right past all of these broadband choices. It’s a 1 Gbps fiber optic service about to be launched as a pilot program by none other than Google.

Yes, some lucky consumers in the test markets are going to get their hands on the kind of bandwidth that makes IT managers green with envy. A Gigabit per second. That’s 1000 Mbps. There’s nothing over coaxial or twisted pair copper and certainly nothing wireless that can even come close to delivering that kind of consumer bandwidth. Even Verizon may have to change out a lot of terminal equipment to pump a Gbps into home networks.

Google swears that they are not planning to become a nationwide ISP. Their intention is to create an environment that can showcase the next developments in technology. What sort of cloud computing, virtual reality, telepresence, or HD 3D video applications need that kind of bandwidth? They’re yet to appear. But this does get past the chicken and egg conundrum, where application development stagnates because of bandwidth limitations and only cutting edge aficionados pony up for the top tiers in broadband service. Google plans to make their service cheap and plentiful so that even the common user can have a crack at this massive bandwidth connectivity.

ISP or not, it’s almost a sure bet that Google will prime the pump with some of their own cutting edge experimental apps. There’s probably all sorts of cool things brewing in the lab that just aren’t practical to launch on today’s broadband networks. Once the bottle’s open and the genies start flying out, you can bet that the development communities will fall all over themselves to get their own offerings out for evaluation.

This pitiful era of a bandwidth starved United States is about to end. That’s exceptionally good news for anyone living out in the boonies who’s stuck with dial-up, or paying a goodly price for satellite broadband and swearing at the latency. Google is, perhaps, the last straw in forcing universal fiber optic connections to the premises. Right now, smart telephone and cable companies are grabbing federal stimulus financing to trench fiber everywhere it isn’t already. It’s more than just serving the populations in low density areas who need and deserve better broadband. Another driving factor is the burgeoning wireless bandwidth demand to support smartphones, such as the iPhone and Droid. The cellular sites are bandwidth limited by the copper lines they have for backhaul. They are going to need fiber to support LTE and speed-ups in WiMAX.

How will wireless fare in the long run? It’s hard to tell how fast will be fast enough for wireless broadband. We’re not there yet. Right now, the relatively small size of cellphone screens takes some pressure off the need for massive bandwidth, even for HD video. But what about that iPad? It’s surely just the first in a whole class of tablet size products with bigger screens and more processing power. That’s going to lead to higher bandwidth demands to support content to feed the tablets. The FCC is already eyeing underutilized TV channels and other portions of the spectrum to press into service for wireless broadband. There will likely be some technology advances needed in the wireless arena to satisfy the ultimate need. After all, you can put more fiber bandwidth in the ground that there are Gbps in the entire regulated electromagnetic spectrum.

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