The Clock Ticks for Gfast in Europe

Any technology that promises to boost broadband speeds over copper lines should find itself in comfortable surroundings in Europe, where copper is still used to connect millions of homes to the Internet.

Yet Gfast, one of several copper-fortifying technologies that have caught the attention of European telcos, has not been universally welcomed in the European market. Regulatory distaste for it is such that Sckipio, one of the world's biggest manufacturers of Gfast chips, now admits to being "worried."

The Israeli vendor this week unveiled some long-awaited Gfast improvements that could provide the spur the technology needs. Yet these are unlikely to see commercial rollout for at least another year, Sckipio Technologies admits. In the meantime, there is a danger that developments overtake Gfast in some important markets. (See Sckipio Unveils Speedy Next-Gen Gfast Chipset.)

The Gfast pushback stems largely from European authorities and their current preference for networks that have an all-fiber flavor.

This was spelled out very starkly in October 2016 during an event hosted by broadband vendor Adtran Inc. (Nasdaq: ADTN), one of Sckipio's key partners. In a presentation at that event, Tony Shortall, a director for consulting group Telage, said the European Commission's latest regulatory framework was driving service providers toward a much narrower selection of high-speed technologies based heavily on fiber. (See EC Rules to Narrow Tech Options for Telcos and G.fast Could Use a Boost.)

Gfast from the distribution point would probably make the grade, said Shortall. But over much longer distances, it would be unlikely to measure up from a regulatory perspective.

Nor was Shortall the only one then highlighting Gfast's dilemma. "From a capacity point of view, cabinet-launched Gfast would probably fall short of requirements for the majority of the serving area," said Ronan Kelly, Adtran's chief technology officer.

A pick-me-up for copper
Gfast essentially works by extending the frequency range over which a broadband signal travels on a copper loop. The original idea was that an operator would, indeed, take fiber up to a distribution point near the customer's premises and then use Gfast to perk up the signal over the last few meters. It would be like an energy supplement for a long-distance runner on the home stretch. (See G.fast: The Dawn of Gigabit Copper?)

But clever researchers at Sckipio and other Gfast vendors have continued to make improvements. So compelling have these been that in early 2015 the UK's BT, one of Europe's biggest fixed-line operators, began eyeing the "cabinet-launched Gfast" about which Adtran's Kelly has more recently expressed reservations.

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In this scenario, the fiber network would extend only as far as the local street cabinet. Gfast would then carry the signal over a copper loop that could be as much as 300 meters from the customer premises. It would make Gfast more of a performance-enhancing substance than an energy supplement.

The worry is that Gfast will still lose some of its potency over these longer distances due to signal attenuation, falling short of regulatory speed targets.

Even so, having already pumped funds into a fiber-to-the-cabinet deployment, BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA) has subsequently put a cabinet-based rollout of Gfast at the very heart of its broadband plans. Using the technology, it reckons it will be able to provide connection speeds of about 330 Mbit/s to around 10 million UK premises by the end of 2020. (See Long-Range, High-Speed Gfast Is Coming – BT.)

Since then, however, it has not exactly been full speed ahead for Gfast in the UK. BT is still very much at the trial stage, having announced additional locations for pilot schemes in its last Gfast update in August. It aims to cover about 1 million premises with the technology by the end of 2017 -- nearly three years after first announcing its plans for Gfast trials. To hit its end-2020 target will mean covering 3 million homes in each of the next three years. (See Eurobites: BT Broadens Gfast Rollout.)

Next page: Speed injection

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