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Fiber Will Trump HFC & 5G From Here to Kingdom Come, EFF Says

Jeff Baumgartner
10/18/2019

Declaring that local US governments are in "dire need of universal fiber plans," the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) issued a white paper this week outlining why fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) will remain the superior choice over cable and emerging 5G networks from here to eternity.

On a performance and operations basis, there's little argument that FTTP holds a multitude of advantages over these other wired and new wireless/mobile platforms. But the EFF made the point that transitioning the "last mile" of the network will "require a massive effort from industry and government" while also criticizing the stunted FTTP rollouts of major telcos such as AT&T and Verizon.

The EFF, a non-profit tasked with "defending civil liberties in the digital world," is also critical of the US telecommunications industry at large for positing that 5G or current DOCSIS infrastructure is "more than up to the task of substituting for fiber." It contends that such arguments have "confused lawmakers, reporters, and regulators into believing we do not have a problem."

"By every measurement, fiber connections to homes and businesses are, by far, the superior choice for the 21st century. It is not even close," the EFF claimed in the paper, titled "The Case For Fiber to the Home, Today: Why Fiber is a Superior Medium for 21st Century Broadband." "And without national coverage policies, it added, low-income Americans and rural Americans have been left behind."

Source: Electronic Frontier Foundation
Source: Electronic Frontier Foundation

5G and the technical limitations of millimeter-wave spectrum, make this next-gen technology a supplement, rather than a direct competitor, to FTTP, the EFF said. That's fairly aligned with what MSOs think of 5G as a home broadband replacement for their DOCSIS-powered HFC networks.

DOCSIS limitations
But the EFF isn't a super fan of DOCSIS, either, pointing to limitations in areas such as raw bandwidth, upstream/downstream symmetry and latency.

DOCSIS 3.1 answers some of those criticisms. Comcast, as one example, plans to introduce a symmetrical 1Gbit/s symmetrical service on its widely deployed DOCSIS 3.1 network sometime in 2020. DOCSIS 4.0, now in the works, will add low-latency capabilities alongside options to expand spectrum to 1.8GHz and support symmetrical 10Gbit/s speeds. Underlying a belief that HFC still has plenty of gas in the tank, CableLabs and other industry engineers are also sizing up support for 3GHz spectrum, and have also begun to cast their gaze at 6GHz.

Still, the EFF stressed that DOCSIS has tradeoffs and fiber is still the "superior medium" for about every metric, including available bandwidth, theoretical capacity, latency and jitter.

Those points aren't really in dispute. In fact, most cable operators are giving FTTP the vote in a targeted way, primarily in greenfield scenarios. And a fresh analysis of the HFC vs. FTTP debate from Broadband Success Partners found that the notion of a full FTTP upgrade could gain traction among cable operators, due in part to the complexities associated with some next-gen HFC options on the table. But it's not clear yet if that notion, backed by this data, will translate into larger-scale FTTP deployments by MSOs.

"I think there is more of an appetite to look at fiber-to-the-home options, especially in greenfields," said Jeff Heynen, research director, broadband access and home networking, at Dell'Oro. 10-Gig EPON port shipments in North America, really the target case here, is growing but still a small piece of the overall market, he added.

While Altice USA is the prime example of a large cable operator undertaking a significant FTTP upgrade, some Tier 2/3 providers that operate both cable and telco plant are also giving fiber a much closer look. "But in the grand scheme, these are very small deployments," Heynen said.

So, outside of edge case examples like Altice USA, there is little doubt that HFC and DOCSIS will remain cable's path forward on the access network for the foreseeable future.

And while FTTP also provides some valuable operational benefits, an all-fiber upgrade is simply too expensive for many MSOs to justify. They still get a lot more bang for the buck with incremental advances that distribute electronics closer to the edge of the network, pull fiber closer (but not all the way) to the premises and take advantage of new generations of DOCSIS that can be deployed much more rapidly than FTTP. While the costs of DOCSIS 4.0 aren't yet known, Charter Communications has stated that its D3.1 network upgrade has cost a mere $9 per home passed (the per-home CPE upgrade costs would add to that total, of course).

But it's also this long-term situation with HFC and DOCSIS, plus US cable's overwhelming dominance of the broadband market, that concerns the EFF.

"As a result, civic planners looking ahead should invest in last-mile fiber infrastructure today," the organization said. "Fiber-to-the-home is the best option to serve most Americans with high-speed, low-latency broadband now, and it will remain so for the foreseeable future."

Is there a true need for more speed?
It's not clear, though, when or if current or future DOCSIS technologies will fall behind the demand for speed, capacity and super-low latency.

From a raw speed standpoint, recent studies suggest that consumers are overpaying for the speeds they are getting today. One such study from The Wall Street Journal, conducted with researchers at Princeton University and the University of Chicago, found that the typical US home gets "marginal gains" by upgrading to faster (and more expensive) speed tiers and that median Internet usage tends to fall well below the advertised speeds of the broadband tiers they subscribe to.

Meanwhile, even as the number of homes that gobble up more than 1 terabyte of Internet data per month climbs steadily, cable engineers have expressed that the rate of data demand, at least in the downstream direction, is starting to slow down after several years of 50% annual growth.

Regardless, the EFF isn't pleased with the status quo. "There is absolutely no good reason we have to accept the current situation as the future," the organization said. "A fundamental refocus on competition, universality, and affordability by local, state, and the federal government is essential to get our house back in order."

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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