DENVER -- Cable Next-Gen Technologies & Strategies -- "Fiber deep" is becoming more common as a cable operator strategy in the gigabit era, but as a panel of experts noted here this week, that doesn't mean massive fiber-to-the-home deployments now, or possibly ever. And one surprising reason for that is the lack of technicians trained to install fiber.
Speaking on a panel dubbed "Fattening Up on Fiber," representatives of four vendors plus one operator agreed that it's hard to scale up a work force which for years has been installing coaxial cable into homes. That reality, in addition to multiple business case challenges, will likely prevent fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) from becoming a predominant approach.
In fact, the rise of 5G wireless may make FTTH much less likely in the long-run, according to some of the panel discussion. But going "fiber deep" and doing FTTH where competitors are building their own all-fiber networks is definitely part of the cable playbook, the panelists agreed. And that's where the near-term challenge is the work force and its lack of familiarity with fiber.
"We have to reduce skill requirements to enable deployment, given current level of manpower," said Kevin Bourg, optical network architect at Corning Inc. (NYSE: GLW). Companies such as Corning have been working for years to make splicing fiber in the field easier and also to improve how connectors are used and make fiber less fragile. There still are decisions to be made and training to be done around connectorization, Bourg added.
Panelist Kevin Noll, senior director, systems architecture, for Tibit Communications , recalled an early FTTH deployment at his former employer, Time-Warner Cable, that failed because the installer -- working at his own home -- kinked the fiber, and was forced to pull out everything he had just trenched in.
"Scale is a big problem," he said. "You look at the installation labor force today -- the bulk of cable industry is trained for coax installation. If you want to scale fiber, those coax techs need to be trained to do fiber."
TWC worked with Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE) at that time to develop training programs to speed up its workforce familiarity with fiber, he said. Noll advocated more work by cable operators to look at their installation procedures and adapt them for a fiber future -- the risk of failing to do that could be getting overbuilt by a more nimble player, he said.
"The question is, how do you change them so they align with your workforce and make it simpler for everyone to do it [fiber installs] faster," Noll commented. Today those installs take too long and there are too many opportunities for failure, he noted.
Stephane Chabot, director of the optical business unit at EXFO (Nasdaq: EXFO; Toronto: EXF), urged greater efforts to invest in automation of processes, including testing, where possible. "Otherwise you are at the mercy of your workforce," he said.
David Ririe, director of access engineering for Cox Communications Inc. and the lone current operator on the panel, said his company had faced the typical problems of delivering FTTH when it deployed a passive optical network strategy two years ago, as a competitive response to Google Fiber and other threats. Those included work force issues, but also cabinet sourcing and placement and connecting to legacy OSS/BSS systems. (See Cox's Finkelstein: Lots of Fiber, No Regrets!)
Those were all among the factors that led Cox to conclude, "like everyone else, that we can't do PON to everyone," Ririe said. "Coax has a very long lifespan."
Instead, Cox is deploying remote PHY devices (RPDs) and taking every opportunity to make a "non-regrettable spend" to push fiber closer to the customer and reduce the size of service nodes.
Ririe was one of several panelists to reference "Cloonan's Curve," a bandwidth prediction model developed by Dr. Thomas Cloonan, CTO of Arris, that is apparently beginning to displace Nielsen's Law of Internet Bandwidth, which set annual bandwidth demand growth at 50%, based on historical trends. Cloonan's Curve tracks a slower pace of bandwidth demand as node sizes and thus service group sizes are reduced.
"Everything we are doing should pull fiber close to the home, whether it is a remote PHY node or fiber-to-the-curb," he said. "Every time you do a node split, we need to pull more fiber closer to the customer."
But he also admitted that Cox will have to continue to respond to competitive threats, so wherever a rival builds FTTH, that will likely happen for Cox as well. "The reality is that once you lose those customers, it's very hard to get them back," Ririe said. "So Cox has to be ready to respond."
Panel moderator Alan Breznick, who heads the cable/video practice at Heavy Reading, noted that at least one cable operator -- Altice -- was committing to an all-fiber strategy. There wasn't much agreement among panelists as to whether its efforts might impact the broader cable industry. Ririe said that was likely "only if they become a competitor" to Cox, but Corning's Bourg said he wouldn't bet against Altice, with its track record, being successful and potentially bringing other cable operators into the FTTH fold.
The next big leap forward may come as 5G wireless begins to roll out, and there is greater need to "densify" cells to support the millimeter wavelengths it is expected to deploy. Fiber backhaul will likely be required to support all those additional smaller cell sites and cable could be well-positioned to deliver those services. In fact, as Glenn Calafati, global director, media and content industry consulting at Ciena Corp. (NYSE: CIEN) noted, if the combined demands for bandwidth for mobile backhaul, business services and residential broadband were combined today, there would be even stronger organic business case for pushing fiber deeper into neighborhoods than already exists.
But as Ririe admitted, cable isn't yet tackling access network planning issues in that broad a fashion, being constrained -- like many in the telecom sector -- by internal siloes.
The advent of 5G could alleviate the need to take fiber all the way home, by providing that last little bit of access, Noll noted. If so, it could solve a lot of problems for those cable operators that have pushed fiber deep, but not all the way home.
— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading