Fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) is the delivery of a communications signal over optical fiber from the operator’s switching equipment all the way to a home or business, thereby replacing existing copper infrastructure such as telephone wires and coaxial cable. Fiber-to-the-home is a relatively new and fast-growing growing method of providing vastly higher bandwidth to consumers, and thereby enabling more robust video, internet and voice services.
What is optical fiber?
Optical fiber is a hair-thin strand of glass, specially designed to trap and transmit light pulses. The fiber uses light instead of electricity to carry a signal. It is unique because it can carry high bandwidth signals over long distances without signal degradation, and it can provide those signals simultaneously in both directions – upload and download. Copper media can also carry high bandwidth, but only for a few hundred yards – after which the signal begins to degrade and bandwidth narrows. Optical fiber has been used in communications networks for more than 35 years, mostly to carry core telecom traffic from city to city or country to country.
Why is fiber optic cable now being connected directly to homes and businesses?
Connecting homes directly to fiber optic cable enables enormous improvements in the bandwidth that can be provided to consumers, both now and in the future for accelerating bandwidth demand. While cable modems generally provide transmission speeds of anywhere between five and 50 megabits per second on the download (and are generally much slower when uploading), current fiber optic technology can provide two-way transmission speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second, with 10 gig systems now coming to market and even higher bandwidth fiber networks being developed. While cable and DSL providers are struggling to squeeze small increments of higher bandwidth out of their technologies, ongoing improvements in fiber optic equipment are constantly increasing available bandwidth without having to change the fiber. That is why fiber networks are said to be “future proof.”
Why do we need all that bandwidth? Aren’t cable and DSL systems good enough for what most people want to do?
This is the age of video over Internet. Increasingly, consumers are using their Internet connections to view television programs from content providers like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and a growing number of websites that provide video in some form. Over the past several years, since in the introduction of the video sharing site YouTube, video has grabbed an ever-larger share of total IP traffic and is now the Internet’s leading application. One high definition movie takes up as much bandwidth as 35,000 web pages. In the meantime, a growing number of companies are offering “software as service” – meaning you subscribe to applications on the net rather than install them on your own computer. These “cloud computing” applications are now available for word processing, emailing, automated remote file backup, and a host of business and personal services. All of these applications – and many others we haven’t even dreamed of yet – are going to require much greater bandwidth than what is generally available today. While many cable modem services have kept up with steadily growing consumer demand for more bandwidth, DSL services have struggled to do so. And it remains to be seen how much longer cable modems, which use copper in the last-mile, are going to be able to keep pace – especially given Cisco’s forecast that IP traffic will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 34 percent in the years to come.
But is a 100% fiber network really necessary?
We have no reason to believe that innovation in Internet applications and services will ever slow down – in fact, all signs point toward their acceleration as high-definition video, telemedicine, distance learning, telecommuting and many other broadband applications come to market. Only fiber to the home is going to be able to deliver the bandwidth we are going to need far into the future.
But it was only a few years ago that I upgraded from dial-up to DSL. Are you telling me I’m going to have to upgrade again?
Think about it. A little more than two years ago, the Internet video service YouTube didn’t even exist. Today, YouTube viewers watch 100 million video clips a day. It was the advance from dialup to DSL and cable modem that made YouTube possible. And now a growing number of Americans are watching their favorite television programs, news, and sporting events over the Internet. They are video-conferencing (Skype, for example) with children, relatives and friends; taking online video college classes; using telemedicine to talk to their health care providers; working from home and many other broadband applications that have so far been limited only by the amount of high-bandwidth connections into people’s homes. Only fiber-to-the-home can deliver the bandwidth we are going to need in the future. We have no reason to believe these innovations will stop.
Are fiber to the home services more expensive than those that are available over cable modem and DSL?
Surveys have shown that FTTH subscribers pay approximately the same for their Internet, voice and video services as do DSL customers and cable providers, and that FTTH subscribers actually pay less per megabit of bandwidth that they receive. In addition, surveys of broadband consumers conducted by Consumer Reports magazine and by the FTTH Council have shown that subscribers of FTTH services show considerably higher satisfaction rates than subscribers of other broadband services.
Satisfaction rates are far higher for FTTH than all other types of broadband: Consumers say higher satisfaction is based on both reliability and speed. Based on speed testing during a recent 2014 survey, those with fiber optics all the way to the residence (fiber to the home or FTTH) enjoy far better performance. Comparing both ends of the spectrum in terms of performance, FTTH versus DSL, FTTH is now 5 times faster on download speeds and 23 times faster on upload speeds.
How is FTTH changing lifestyles?
Based on consumer estimates of applications load time – “gears turning” – FTTH consumers are far more productive. Compared with the slowest type of broadband, FTTH consumers spend 49 fewer annual hours waiting for things to load FTTH users work from home more often and enjoy a home value premium of over $5,000 versus other types of broadband (Study by RVA & Associates, Tulsa).
Why can’t I get these high-bandwidth applications with DSL or cable modem?
DSL and cable modems rely on copper wire to deliver signals to your home – and copper can deliver high bandwidth only over very short distances. That’s fine if you happen to live a few hundred yards from your provider’s switching station, but most people don’t. Optical fiber does not have this limitation and thus is able to carry high bandwidth signals over great distances to homes and businesses. Only fiber-to-the-home can deliver the immense bandwidth that the applications of the future will require.
I’ve heard that wireless technologies like WiFi and WiMAX can deliver the same kind of service as fiber-to-the-home without having to go through the trouble of installing new wires into homes. Is this true?
No. Wireless broadband is subject to spectrum availability – the cost of which limits bandwidth and the applications it can provide. These wireless technologies cannot deliver high definition television and they have trouble delivering standard television. HDTV is only one of the many high-broadband applications now being developed for our broadband future. Wireless will always be a useful mobile application adjunct to FTTH.
What about satellite? Most people have that choice, don’t they?
Yes. Satellite offers video but it cannot offer robust broadband Internet service because the subscriber can only download the signal. Upload is normally provided through the subscriber’s telephone lines, which limits transmission speeds for user-generated content.
How many homes are hooked up directly to fiber networks?
Based on a recent 2014 survey, there are 10.4 million homes connected to fiber in North America compared with 9.7 million in May 2013 and there are now 58 providers offering gigabit-per-second packages. In those homes, users report spending over 5 hours a day online and have an average of 5.5 Internet connected devices. Broadband users under age 35 report getting over half of their video content from online sources using a variety of devices, including computers, tablets, and cell phones. Information from the Fiber to the Home Council www.ftthcouncil.org