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Ultra-Broadband

ECI Touts GPON Advance

After a week of big broadband access news, ECI Telecom Ltd. has bolstered its fiber access technology offering with two new GPON systems. (See ECI Unveils GPON Gear, 'Run Away!' Nokia Siemens Retreats From GPON, and PON-derous!.)

ECI is already a GPON vendor, and has won a couple of small deals with its existing GPON cards that slot into its central office Hi-FOCuS multiservice access node (MSAN). (See Fibra Uses ECI For GPON and ECI Wires Nancy.)

Now, though, ECI is after bigger deals as demand for GPON systems is set to grow from more than $1 billion in 2007 to around $4.7 billion by 2011 as carriers build out fiber access networks, according to the Light Reading Insider. (See Bright Prospects for GPON.)

Speaking of growth, a recent Infonetics Research Inc. report noted that worldwide GPON manufacturer revenue increased by 33 percent from the fourth quarter of 2007 to the first quarter of 2008, while the number of ports shipped increased by 38 percent. The research firm named Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU) as the GPON equipment market leader by revenues, followed by Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd.

So ECI wants a slice of the action, and it has developed two new GPON chassis, the F152 and F61, which are OLT (optical line termination) units "designed for the central office – they're designed to handle a large number of subscribers," says ECI associate VP of product marketing, Ron Levin.

Levin explains that the F152 supports 15 subscriber cards and two network interface cards, while the F61 has six subscriber cards and one network interface card. Each network interface card, which aggregates the traffic from the installed subscriber line cards, has two 10 Gbit/s and four 1 Gbit/s interfaces towards the network.

Different approach
The unique aspect, though, comes in the line cards, says Levin, as "each one houses houses a network processor," an approach that ECI believes will deliver the kind of processing power and flexibility service providers need to deliver a full suite of ever-changing services and applications.

The inclusion of a network processor provides "stronger processing capabilities for intelligent services," and allows operators to update and enhance their GPON systems with features such as security and QOS using remote software upgrades, says the ECI man, who says the vendor had done the same thing with its DSL platforms, which scored notable success in Europe at Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT) and Orange (NYSE: FTE).

"We have taken the service intelligence that we have already developed for DSL and we're bringing it to GPON," says Levin. "Everyone has been focused so far on getting GPON to work to some sort of scale. We could see where this was going, that service upgrades and flexibility would be needed."

But there's a payback for going down the integrated network processor route – cost. "There is a capex implication," admits Levin, "but the flexibility of software upgrades means the cards can be updated without having to replace the card or involve a field engineer. So there might be an immediate capex hit of around $100 to $200 per line card -- equivalent to one truck roll -- but over time, including operating costs, this offers better [total cost of ownership]."

The main alternative to using a network processor is "to use ASICs [application specific integrated circuits]. With ASICs, any upgrade requires a technician in the field, and the ASIC has to be replaced or re-burned," and over time that's a costly and slow approach, according to the ECI man.

Levin says the new GPON platforms are "commercially available immediately, and we have a backlog of customers waiting for delivery, including our existing GPON customers in Norway and France. It has been trialed by several operators, including three Tier 1 carriers. One of those Tier 1 operators is an existing ECI broadband customer." He declined to offer any further details, but France Telecom would be the ECI customer that would fit that profile. (See Vendors Vie for FT GPON Deal.)

Levin sees "opportunities in Western Europe, the former Soviet Union, and in Asia/Pacific, but we see GPON being deployed everywhere, even in emerging markets in greenfield projects, especially as the price of copper has risen so much recently."

So does ECI believe it will be alone in adopting the integrated network processor approach to GPON? "I expect others to follow us in doing this. This is all about broadband services, and carriers need the flexibility and processing power this approach can deliver."

Main rival favors different roadmap
If other vendors are to follow ECI's lead, it doesn't look like GPON market leader Alcatel-Lucent will be among the chasing pack, as it favors FPGAs (field-programmable gate arrays) over network processors (NPs).

Marcus Weldon, CTO of the giant vendor's Fixed Access Division, believes FPGAs, which have improved in terms of increased speed and density, and lower power consumption and cost, have become a genuine alternative to NPs.

Weldon particularly highlights the lower power consumption of FPGAs when compared with network processors, and believes that NPs will struggle to compete with FPGAs as carbon footprint issues creep up the carrier list of concerns. He also questions just how easy it is to re-program a network processor, noting that, for example, there is a limited amount of code memory to support changes.

Weldon, though, admits that FPGAs, which can be re-written with new firmware, are also limited in this respect, as they have only limited device resources for new function implementations.

Overall, AlcaLu increasingly favors FPGAs for high-speed packet processing functions in its access products because of the lower power use and cost, and their ability to support system-on-a-chip functionality, though it still uses network processors in certain, lower-speed applications.

— Ray Le Maistre, International News Editor, Light Reading

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