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Even FTTH Rides the Wireless Wave

Carol Wilson
9/26/2012

DALLAS -- FTTH Council Expo -- This may be a fiber conference, but there is an awful lot of talk about wireless technology here.

Whether it's the backhaul market, using wireless for extending broadband service from fiber or managing wireless networks inside fiber-connected homes, there's no escaping the impact of wireless success on fiber deployment.

That doesn't mean the FTTH segment is in lockstep agreement here on fiber-related issues. For example, using wireless to extend the reach of a FTTH network seems acceptable for casual or short-term use, but it's a point of contention as a long-term option.

Gary Evans, president and CEO of Minnesota-based Hiawatha Broadband, said his company was happily using a Wi-Fi network built by a local university to extend the reach of its network to a lot of places where there's no wireline coverage. And Mark Ansboury, president of Gigabit Squared, a venture-backed startup building fiber in six university communities, viewed gigabit wireless as a means of offering service in advance of building out fiber. Ansboury went so far as to suggest that wireless traffic patterns can be used to predict where the fiber buildout needs to go next.

"For us, it's a gap-filler until fiber can be cost-justified," he said.

At the same time, Evans added, using wireless to extend the fiber network on a more permanent basis "destroys the central concept" of an all-fiber network in terms of quality control. That's a concern shared by other fiber providers.

Stoking the wireless debate
Kevin Morgan, VP of Marketing for Adtran Inc. (Nasdaq: ADTN), admits there can be something of a "religious debate" among his customers about using wireless extensions, but ultimately he sees them as comparable to DSL extensions, which the local loop fiber community has been using for years.

"Ultimately, FTTH is the goal, but how do we prove it business-wise? Wireless is one way to do that," Morgan says.

Since its acquisition of BlueSocket, which makes virtual wireless LANs, Adtran has been actively exploring not only enabling its network operator customers to use wireless extensions but also to offer Wi-Fi offload as a wholesale service to mobile operators, something Morgan says is just down the road. (See Adtran Buys Bluesocket.)

There was no debate over the value of the mobile backhaul market, but there was a lot of drooling. The folks building out fiber networks can't get to the cell towers fast enough.

"This is a huge business for all of us," said Evans.

The demand is so great that Frank Latini, technical services manager of Gainesville Regional Utilities, said there are rumored instances where fiber isn't being trenched in traditional ways but basically laid on the ground, awaiting trenching at a later time, to get to the tower quickly.

On a later panel, George O'Neal, VP of Network Services for GVTC , which serves a group of Texas communities near San Antonio, said his firm is also finding mobile backhaul to be lucrative. But the company had to upgrade its network to a Layer 3 offering, from a Layer 2, to meet the service level agreements of major wireless operators. Thus far, GVTC has connected 14 towers to a mobile switch for Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) and is working on similar connections from 17 AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) towers to a local switch, in addition to planning work with Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) and T-Mobile US Inc. .

"It is a lucrative market, but it is more complex than we thought," O'Neal said.

Adtran's Morgan argued that such complexity isn't necessarily required.

"Ethernet has enabled a simple model for mobile backhaul that meets the RFPs [requests for proposal] of wireless operations, including SLAs [service level agreements] for less than 5-millisecond delay," Morgan says. "Mobile operators are looking for an Ethernet hand-off. The only time Ethernet has a problem is if you want mesh network redundancy."

Home is also where the network is
The inside-the-home network –- being called the final frontier by many here -– is already dominated by Wi-Fi wireless technology and most don't see that changing, but Verizon is pushing fiber deeper into its residential units, including both multiple-dwelling units (MDUs) and single family homes, says Christopher Levendos, Verizon's executive director of strategic initiatives and performance monitoring. (More on this topic is coming soon.)

Other network operators are still heavily focused on figuring out how to manage all the devices that are attached to the broadband network via Wi-Fi, says Geoff Burke, senior director, corporate marketing, at Calix Inc. (NYSE: CALX), which has been focused on remote management of the in-home network this year. (See Calix Gets SaaS-y Wth Customer Service .)

Because the in-home performance of many devices will depend on the wireless portion of the network as well as the broadband fiber connection, FTTH providers can't escape managing those services for their customers as well, he says.

— Carol Wilson, Chief Editor, Events, Light Reading

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