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RBOCs Cast Wide GPON Net

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News Analysis
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More details are coming forth from the request for information (RFI) for gigabit passive optical networks (GPONs) that was sent to industry equipment suppliers by three RBOCs on April 29 (see Sources: RBOCs Are Gawking at GPON). And, though there is indeed a "fishing expedition" going on, the RBOCs are serious about getting their access networks up to gigabit speeds and delivering a different consumer experience than the cable companies.

While no formal request for proposal (RFP) has hit the streets yet, the three largest U.S. RBOCs -- BellSouth Corp. (NYSE: BLS), SBC Communications Inc. (NYSE: SBC), and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) -- have asked for a wide range of data from suppliers in order to weigh how to use GPON in the new broadband buildouts.

The main focus of the RFI is on GPON systems, but there is definitely an interest in comparing BPON (broadband PON) and EPON (Ethernet PON) to GPON to see which method of connectivity costs less, is most widely available, and is easiest to deploy, sources familiar with the RFI say.

This new information is significant because it illustrates that, while the RBOCs have a keen interest in faster fiber-based access networks, they're still a ways away from nailing down the specifics about how much GPON they'll use and where they'll use it.

"We're going to have a significant amount of BPON out there before we do any GPON," says Verizon spokesman Mark Marchand.

Verizon, by the way, won't comment directly on the RFI's requirements. Neither will SBC, but the carrier remains bullish on GPON's future prospects.

"GPON is something we're interested in… and we're looking at it in our labs," says SBC spokesman Wes Warnock.

For BPON, the RFI asks vendors to say how much it would cost them to provide and support 200,000 ONTs (optical network terminals) annually and 1 million ONTs annually at four different bandwidth configurations.

Table 1: RBOC's ONT Cost Requests

BPON Downlink BPON Uplink
622 Mbit/s 155 Mbit/s
622 Mbit/s 622 Mbit/s
1.2 Gbit/s 155 Mbit/s
1.2 Gbit/s 622 Mbit/s

For GPON, the RFI again asks for pricing for 200,000 ONTs and 1 million ONTs annually, but this time at seven different bandwidth configurations.

Table 2: RBOC's Requested GPON ONT Costs
GPON Downlink GPON Uplink
1.2 Gbit/s 155 Mbit/s
1.2 Gbit/s 622 Mbit/s
1.2 Gbit/s 1.2 Gbit/s
2.4 Gbit/s 155 Mbit/s
2.4 Gbit/s 622 Mbit/s
2.4 Gbit/s 1.2 Gbit/s
2.4 Gbit/s 2.4 Gbit/s

For EPON, the RFI asks for pricing for 200,000 ONTs and 1 million ONTs annually at 1.2 Gbit/s symmetrical.

There are several ONT-specific questions as well, sources say, including one asking the cost of a three-port Ethernet switch in the ONT. There is also a question asking vendors to assess the costs of supporting ONT Ethernet connection with 35-, 50-, and 100-Mbit/s throughputs.

A final item of intrigue is the description of a different video network architecture than had been discussed two years earlier in the joint FTTP RFP. One section of the GPON RFI, sources say, talks about a satellite direct-to-home (DTH) relay service, where a satellite dish or an array of broadcast antennas would be located at each central office where optical line terminals (OLTs) are hosted.

That's a huge deal, too, because it shows RBOCs are considering a way of simplifying their previously described video distribution networks. Rather than using master headends and regional headends -- and all the high-speed connections between those locations -- the RBOCs appear to be exploring a way to take video direct from satellite to local distribution points, giving them a chance to further differentiate themselves from cable networks.

The fact that the RBOCs have cast such a wide net has led a few Light Reading sources to say that the phone companies are on a fishing expedition. However it's characterized, any written expression that the largest phone companies in North America aren't going to stop at BPON is a huge boon to PON vendors of all sorts.

"If a vendor is delivering BPON now and doesn't have GPON in their plans or on their roadmap, then they're so dumb they shouldn't be in the market," says Kermit Ross, principal analyst at Millennium Marketing.

The vendors this RFI will impact include fiber access vendors such as Alcatel (NYSE: ALA; Paris: CGEP:PA), Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT), Tellabs Inc. (Nasdaq: TLAB; Frankfurt: BTLA), Optical Solutions Inc., and Hitachi Telecom (USA) Inc. But it also includes broadband loop carrier vendors such as Calix Networks Inc., Entrisphere Inc., Occam Networks Inc. (OTC: OCCM), and Ciena Corp. (Nasdaq: CIEN) -- and, of course, ONT makers like Siemens AG (NYSE: SI; Frankfurt: SIE).

"The field is a fairly big one," Ross says, "but it's also fairly full."

— Phil Harvey, News Editor, Light Reading

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