Swisscom's Fiber Feast
Swisscom's Markus Reber probably wouldn't tell consumers buying the operator's fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) products that 1 Gbit/s is a "marketing speed, not a service speed" -- it would be like a restaurateur admitting to his diners that lunch won't look as good as it does in the photo.
But the head of Swisscom's rollout and access department was addressing a room packed with industry representatives at the Ultra-Broadband (UBB) Forum in London when he unashamedly announced that FTTH reality does not always live up to the promise.
Even if more trusting Swiss broadband customers do get wind of Reber's remarks, there is hardly cause for panic. Experience has undoubtedly taught most consumers to treat operator speed claims with a degree of skepticism.
All that said, Swisscom has been under more pressure than many European incumbents to pump up the broadband speed. As Reber described it to Forum attendees, the operator faces a total of 250 cable operators throughout Switzerland -- although only UPC Cablecom provides nationwide services -- with a combined market share of about 30%.
"The local providers have strong contacts with customers, and customers rely on doing business face-to-face in Switzerland," said Reber. "Lots of the cable operators are using DOCSIS 3.0 technology, and so the peak rate of their bandwidth is higher than we can offer on our existing copper network."
As if that weren't enough, Swisscom also has to contend with the fact that some 20 power utilities have been developing their own local FTTH networks. As far back as 2008, the likes of ewz-Zurich had formulated plans to offer 100 Mbit/s connections on both the uplink and the downlink -- at least twice as much as Swisscom could then provide using fiber-to-the-curb (FTTC) technology. (See Vectoring: Some Va-Va-Voom for VDSL and Swisscom Plans $2.3B FTTx Rollout.)
Until about two years ago, plain vanilla FTTC and FTTH were the only technologies to feature in the incumbent's superfast broadband plans, says Reber, but the operator soon realized there was a major risk that customers outside FTTH zones would defect to rivals promising higher-speed alternatives.
Swisscom's high market share of about 50% has allowed it to continue investing more per citizen than any other European incumbent, according to Reber, but FTTH deployment is an extremely costly endeavor, as everyone in the industry can appreciate. The challenge for the operator was to up its game without blowing its budget.
The answer has been found in technologies such as vectoring and G.fast, which are supercharging copper local loops to provide connection speeds surpassing what FTTH was originally able to support. That has allowed Swisscom to offer high-speed services in areas where FTTH rollout remains uneconomical. (See Vectoring: Some Va-Va-Voom for VDSL and G.fast: The Dawn of Gigabit Copper?.)
The mixture of broadband technologies in Swisscom's arsenal now includes FTTC with vectoring, as well fiber-to-the-street (FTTS), where fiber is run to within 200 meters of homes and businesses, and fiber-to-the-building (FTTB), with copper wiring used to connect the tenants inside a fiber-served apartment block. (See Swisscom Boasts FTTX Milestone.)
According to Reber, connection speeds of up to 100 Mbit/s are currently available with these technologies, but Swisscom plans to start offering services of up to 500 Mbit/s over the FTTS and FTTB networks in 2016. The operator is said to be collaborating with China's Huawei Technologies -- its main FTTS partner -- on the introduction of the G.fast standard that could provide this kind of bandwidth boost in the years ahead.
Will all this be sufficient to stop the cable operators in their tracks? By 2020, Swisscom aims to have covered 52% of the population with FTTS and G.fast, and another 28% with FTTH. By July, more than 800,000 homes could receive an FTTH service offering downstream connection speeds of 1 Gbit/s. Yet more than 2 million will have to settle for 100 Mbit/s, at most, until 2016.
Some of those, however, could instead opt for a cable service from UPC Cablecom, which claimed in July to have activated 250 Mbit/s connections across its entire footprint of more than 2 million homes. Cablecom already has 1 Gbit/s technology in its sights, and it may arrive at this milestone before Swisscom brings G.fast into commercial use.
Switzerland's broadband marketing battle over speed seems unlikely to end anytime soon.
— Iain Morris, Site Editor, Ultra-Broadband