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Cable Starts to Seed All-Fiber Future

A cable fiber push may make complete sense from a competitive standpoint, but North American MSOs are taking a long and winding road before fully embracing fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) technologies, according to new research from Heavy Reading.

The troubling financial climate is factoring into cable’s sluggish all-fiber drive. “The economy is dampening any enthusiasm for cable fiber projects, especially the bad housing market," says Alan Breznick, senior analyst at Heavy Reading and author of the report, "Next-Gen Cable Networks: Opportunities for Fiber-Based Technologies."

The business also faces a chicken-and-egg scenario, given that standards are still being hammered out for cable’s FTTP ambitions. The industry is waiting for the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE) to craft the initial set of technology guidelines for building FTTP extensions to HFC plant. Breznick says those Radio Frequency Over Glass (RFoG) standards should be out this fall.

Still, that isn’t stopping about a dozen vendors from unveiling RFoG equipment, and MSOs from ramping up some early fiber trials and pilot deployments. (See Zhone Does RFOG, Alloptic Notches 'RFOG' Wins, Harmonic, CommScope Team On 'RFoG', Hitachi Rolls Out RFoG Gear , and Calix Uses RFOG.)

“Right now, cable feels that it can compete with its current infrastructure,” says Breznick. “However, operators also realize that they may not be OK. They know they need to start planning for the future.”

The Heavy Reading study predicts North American cable operators will pass no more than 50,000 to 100,000 homes and businesses with RFoG technology.

As proposed, RFoG enables MSOs to target all-fiber extensions off of legacy HFC networks to new housing developments, businesses customers, or other "greenfield" opportunities, without changing any existing headend and hub technology or customer-side equipment, including digital cable-set top boxes and Docsis-based cable modems and embedded multimedia terminal adapters (E-MTAs). In most RFoG scenarios, a small optical network unit (ONU) handles the optical-to-electrical conversion at the premises.

The predicted number of RFoG homes passed could grow higher if one or more major operators make a sizable commitment to fiber, the study suggests. Already, several North American MSOs are scrutinizing the potential of all-fiber installations.

Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) and Cox Communications Inc. have issued separate requests for information (RFIs) about cable FTTP architecture. (See Time Warner Cable's Fiber-licious RFI and Cox Flirts With Fiber .)

Meanwhile, Bright House Networks and WideOpenWest Holdings LLC (WOW) are either testing or rolling out all-fiber networks. And small operators -- such as Armstrong Cable , BendBroadband , Midcontinent Communications (Midco) , and NPG Cable Inc. -- are deploying FTTP systems to serve residential or commercial subscribers, according to the Heavy Reading study.

A number of other MSOs, including Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), Bresnan Communications LLC , Cable One Inc. , Suddenlink Communications , Sunflower Broadband , and Canada-based Rogers Communications Inc. (NYSE: RG; Toronto: RCI), also are giving FTTP a closer look.

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