Optical access

Commercial and regulatory constraints have been largely blamed for inhibiting the commercial deployment of FTTx access technology across the globe. CommsMEA explores the business case for Middle East operators.
Optical access
By Administrator
Tue 09 Oct 2007 04:52 PM

The trend toward optical fibre networks replacing, or at least partly substituting, copper local loop telecommunications infrastructure has been driven largely by developments in Asia.

In South Korea and Japan, such developments have been heavily supported by the countries' respective governments in a bid to attract greater ICT investment.

Longer-term OPEX savings can be in the region of 40 to 60% when compared to legacy networks. These savings can be achieved by rationalising multiple access networks.

However, commercial constraints and regulatory restrictions have conspired to act as more of a deterrent in Western markets where operators have proven reluctant to discard their legacy networks, according to Elaine Chow, a telecommunications consultant for research firm Ovum.

Alcatel-Lucent's experience of working with fibre optic access networks dates back to the initial commercial availability of the technology almost 30 years ago.

The company recently set a world record for the transmission feed of 25.6 Tb/s of optical data over a single fibre strand - enough bandwidth to transmit data from more than 600 feature length DVDs per second - earlier this year.

This feat by far surpassed the previous transmission record of 14 Tb/s established in September 2006 by Nippon Telegram and Telephone. It also serves to underline how commercial availability continues to lag far behind technological capability.

"Optical networking is a critical enabler of the broadband IP revolution that we are seeing throughout the world today," asserts Romano Valussi, president of Alcatel-Lucent's Optics activities.

With such rapid technological advancements hinting at the massive potential of the technology long-term, the onus remains on network operators to make sufficient investment in the commercial deployment of fibre optic technology.

Given that the Middle East telco sector is still classified as a ‘developing market' by many industry analysts, how do regional operators stand to benefit from such technological advances?

"At present, maximum connectivity speeds for customers in the Middle East is 1-2Tb/s using the South East Asia, Middle East and Western Europe cable (SEAMEWE-4)," claims Mazen Hamadallah, Alcatel-Lucent general manager and country senior officer UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman.

"This cable extends from South East Asia to Western Europe and is relayed through to terrestrial transport networks to areas such as the Middle East."

Hamadallah points out that the large scale deployment of fibre optics firstly requires transmission equipment (otherwise known as backhaul) to transport information between the network nodes.

"Secondly, what is required is an access network. Access technology is different from the transmission equipment as it has less capacity to transport data," he adds.

Although the cost of a fibre to the home (FTTH ) rollout will vary from country-to-country, Ovum's Chow estimates the cost to be in the vicinity of $1,500 per household in a given market.

FTTx in the Asia PacificThe Asia-Pacific region currently accounts for the majority of the world's FTTH installations. Ovum predicts that by the end of 2009, there will be approximately 13.8 million FTTH subscribers globally, 82% of whom will reside in the Asia-Pacific region.

Operators in China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and others are all involved in projects that take fibre to the home or at least closer to it. Asia-Pacific FTTH activity is currently concentrated in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

Chunghwa Telecom, Taiwan's incumbent operator, plans to spend US$1.83 billion over the next five years for a fibre-to-the-building network that will initially connect about 25% of Taiwan's 7.4 million residences and offices.

Hamadallah also notes that an important consideration for network operators is the cost of deploying FTTx networks on such a large scale.

The additional cost of deploying fibre optic infrastructure in urban locations has eroded the business case for network operators in Western markets, leading them to rely on existing infrastructure, he adds.

If fibre optic cable is deployed from day one, then it is no more expensiveathan installing copper cable.

However, Chow also points out that the massive upfront investment involved in deploying FTTH infrastructure is often justified by the savings of ongoing OPEX - as opposed to increased revenue operators might generate - given the existing uncertainties over end-user willingness to pay for additional bandwidth.

"Longer-term OPEX savings can be in the region of 40-60% when compared to legacy networks. These savings can be achieved by rationalising multiple access networks. Fibre networks also demand inherently less maintenance than copper," she notes.

The best approach to delivering last mile connectivity to subscribers is by using gigabyte passive optical network (GPON) technology, suggests Hamadallah.

"The history of this technology stems back to 1995 when PON became commercially available. The technology has since evolved to GPON, which can facilitate massive amounts of data, offering subscribers services such as video conferencing, surveillance and IPTV services," he adds.

Hamadallah maintains that network operators based in less mature markets, such as those in Middle East, would be prime beneficiaries of the latest raft of fibre optic transmission technology. He also points out that the region's real estate construction boom will increase demand for fibre optic access networks.

"The Middle East is a unique market given that current level of investment in the region's infrastructure is resulting in cities springing up almost from nothing. In my opinion this is exactly the right time for local operators to deploy fibre optic infrastructure given the synergies the technology offers.

Alcatel-Lucent has paired with the Ministry of Communication (MoC) in Kuwait to develop a GPON network in the country. Hamadallah claims that a host of other operators in the region have demonstrated an interest in establishing their own service offerings based on the technology, including UAE incumbent telco Etisalat.

"Etisalat is in the advanced stages of testing our GPON technology," he says. "The telco is assessing whether the technology is compatible with its business model at present," he reveals.

"If fibre optic cable is deployed from day one, then it is no more expensive than installing copper cable. In fact, many developers are not waiting for vendors or network operators to install the FTTH networks," he states.

In an earlier interview, Etisalat chairman Mohammad Omran told CommsMEA that the deployment of best-available technologies was intrinsic to the company's ongoing expansion strategy.

"At Etisalat, our strategy is to offer the best possible services to any market we enter and this is a philosophy that we apply to every one of our undertakings," he declared.

If indeed the Arab world's third largest telco puts its weight behind passive optical network technology, it will provide a massive boost to the fortunes of the high speed FTTx technology sector in the Middle East.

Radio broadband access vs Fixed broadband access"I believe that all access technologies will co-exist. In Europe, we have already witnessed the co-existence of all the broadband technologies be it copper, ADSL, fibre, or wireless," states Alcatel-Lucent's Hamadallah.

The newly merged company is currently championing the IEEE 802.16e-2005 standard WiMAX-based solution as a wireless broadband access technology, claiming that it can facilitate connection speeds of up to 2Mbps per user.

Lebanon's Globalcom Data Services was the first Middle East ISP to trial the technology with a nationwide commercial rollout scheduled before the end of this year.

"I expect the Gulf region to have a combination of all the access technologies meaning the end-user will be the ultimate beneficiary," states Hamadallah.

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