Wednesday, July 10, 2013

War of the words continues between fiber and copper

Recently, the Dutch cable sector (i.e. Ziggo, UPC and NLkabel - NOT the smaller cable companies and CIF) decided to step up its lobbying efforts against the fiber lobby (led by Reggefiber/KPN). It all seems to come down to the use of the words 'future-proof' (toekomstvast or toekomstbestendig). Now, unfortunately, Hartwig Tauber of the FTTH Council Europe, decided to enter into this silly discussion, claiming that FTTH is the only future-proof network:
“Fibre to the Home is de enige toekomstbestendige oplossing. Consumenten profiteren nu al van glasvezelverbindingen die 1 Gbps en meer bieden voor het up- én downloaden. Bovendien is Fibre to the Home in staat een niet te kloppen servicekwaliteit te bieden. In plaats van consumenten te misleiden met maximumsnelheden kunnen Fibre to the Home-netwerken aan ieder huishouden een gegarandeerde snelheid leveren. Operators die gegarandeerde snelheden van 100 Mbps en meer aanbieden, bevestigen dat klanten tevreden zijn met die snelle verbindingen.
Er zijn echter nog steeds spelers op de markt die stellen dat hun koperoplossing toekomstbestendig is, omdat consumenten geen hogere snelheden nodig hebben. Het logische gevolg hieruit is dat deze partijen hun klanten voorschrijven wat toekomstbestendigheid inhoudt en de ontwikkeling van innovatieve diensten belemmeren, waaronder diensten met grote socio-economische voordelen.”
Of course, this is total nonsense. No single network is future-proof. Every network needs work: maintenance, repairs, upgrades, etc. And it all starts with the question: is this about the passive or the active components? Fiber appears to be the way forward, but you can never tell; and 100 Mb/s equipment seemed to be enough, until Reggefiber decided to upgrade to 1 Gb/s - with implications for backhaul (i.e. fiber) as well.

And then there is the use of the words future-proof: linguisitically (semantics), it is incorrect to talk about 'more' or 'less' future-proof, in the same way as it is nonsensical to say that something is 'more perfect' or 'less perfect'. Something is either future-proof, or it isn't. And no single technology is future-proof.

We have been proponents of FTTH for many years, but the discussion has to be fair. NLkabel and the FTTH Council are bending the truth (to say the least). And this isn't helping. Of course, fiber is better than HFC: more capacity, easier to upgrade, symmetric, open. But FTTH is on the roadmap of HFC as much as it is on the roadmap of copper networks.

Unfortunately, Hartwig's statement fails on more points:
  • He forgets to mention openness.
  • He talks about bandwidth guarantees, but networks are all shared at some point in their architecture.
  • He doesn't distinguish between GPON ('shared') and WDM-PON and p2p ethernet fiber (dedicated) networks.
We have written on the subject twice recently. In summary, there are three points to be made, two of which are mostly overlooked:
  1. FTTH beats HFC in many respects (see above). Cable operators are billing their networks as NGNs, which is total nonsense. One needs to distinguish between the passive and the active networks. Every network can be upgraded. FTTH is on the roadmap of all.
  2. There is a sharp distinction between the advantages for users (QoS, real estate value), for operators (capacity, opex, new business models) and for governments (socio-economic and environmental benefits).
    • Fact is, that many cable customers still are happy customers.
    • Fiber operators are trying to make the network a worry for their customers ('choose the network that is most future-proof'), but the customer shouldn't care. The network is the operator's worry. Fiber operators also claim that cable networks cannot keep up, but again, that is the cableco's worry. Or that they can't afford it - which is probably true, but let John Malone worry about that. If their upgrades start falling behind demand growth, the market will do its work and subscribers will migrate to FTTH. There's one problem though: FTTH penetration. In areas where FTTH will not be deployed for many years, HFC only competes with DSL and hence has no incentive to move to all-fiber, which could create a digital divide.
    • The government has no voice, because it decided to leave telecoms to the market (apart from rural areas, where the market fails), and so: either shut up or create a national infrastructure, either the Australia (nationalisation) or the Singapore way (tender).
  3. The way the market works, is that capacity is added as demand grows. Business models are based on scarcity. Moving to an all-fiber gigabit network is a big leap and only makes sense when other forms of upgrades make no sense from a return point iof view, or when new business models, based on abundance, are explored.

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