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June 1999

Robert Vahid Hashemian The Droop In The Local Loop


They say a system is only as good as its weakest link. When it comes to telecom/datacom, the local loop (also known as the last mile) is the proverbial weak link. I found that out the hard way. One fine day last year I walked into the office and was greeted by one our MIS guys, informing me that our frame-relay service was out. At that time, we had just gotten over several outages caused by our ISP’s router malfunctions, and this was the last straw that sent me into a rage. Our ISP also happens to be our local and long-distance Competitive Local Exchange Carrier (CLEC) as well, and we had selected that company after struggling through sub-standard and expensive services offered by our Incumbent Local Exchange Carrier (ILEC). After examining our systems to make sure that the frame-relay problem was not our fault, I called our ISP to report the outage, and requested immediate action to resolve the problem.

Four hours later we were still sitting in the dark, and I could almost feel the steam coming out of my ears. I was put in touch with one of our CLEC’s systems engineers with expertise in routers. He took me through a list of diagnostics and troubleshooting procedures for our servers and routers, in the hopes of isolating the problem to our site — since he swore their systems were humming just fine and the problem had to be with our equipment. Yeah right! After an hour of this futile exercise, it was finally determined that neither our system nor our ISP’s was at fault. The attention suddenly turned to the ILEC, who, of course, provided the last-mile service to our business.

Indeed, the trouble was with them all along, and yet, it took them a full four hours after we alerted them to turn the service back on. Here was their side of the story: That week, most of the ILEC’s staff was on strike, and they were operating with a skeletal crew. An inexperienced technician had run a diagnostics test on their local switch the night before, rendering some of the circuits (including ours) inoperative, and hadn’t bothered or understood how to check the system’s soundness before leaving. Once this was determined by the ILEC, they needed to figure out how to undo the damage and bring the circuit back to life. With the experienced people on strike, the skeleton crew fumbled about for a few hours until they were finally able to restore the service back to normal. And just when most of our company was wrapping up the work day and heading home!

But you know what the worst part of it all was? The fact that I couldn’t interact directly with the local guys while they were trying to fix the problem. You see, as far as the ILEC was concerned, we were not a customer of theirs. Therefore, not only did they have no obligation to directly support us, but I also felt that our plight was somehow given last priority after all of their direct customers had been taken care of. Instead, I could only talk with our ISP — who, to their credit, were trying their best but still only feeding me second-hand information on the work in progress. Who could I have held accountable for this outage? Our contract clearly stated that our ISP (also our CLEC) would be responsible, but in reality it was the ILEC that had screwed up.

The Telecom Act of 1996 has certainly made a positive impact in creating and fostering competition in the telecommunications industry. But our admittedly minor disaster proved to me that there are still plenty of wrinkles left that need ironing out. And perhaps the most serious of these wrinkles is the local loop, a.k.a. the last mile — the weak link. The local loop is the final run of the cable between the local Central Office (CO) and the termination point (demarcation) at the customer’s premise. Although it is sometimes referred to as the last mile, it could be a few hundred feet. In order for a CLEC to provide access for its customers, it must do one of two things: Either provide a direct line between its network and the customer’s premise; or rent the currently available line from the ILEC and co-locate its equipment within the ILEC’s CO. The telecom act mandated the ILECs to unbundle their services, and allow CLECs to transmit their signals on the local loop at a fair price. Without this, the CLECs would have been forced to go to Option One — providing a direct link between the customer premise and their network, which would have been complicated and very costly. Of course, the drawback is that the last mile — for all intents and purposes — remains under the control of the ILEC, leading to problems such as the one we experienced during the frame-relay outage. So the local loop will continue to remain the ILEC’s territory. Or so it would seem on the surface.

For years, businesses and consumers have been placing ever-increasing demands on their telecommunication services. Whether voice, data, fax, or video, the world’s appetite for bandwidth has been on a sharp incline, and shows no signs of slowdown. Take one glance at the dizzying pace at which data access speeds have grown in a few short years, and this point should be obvious. As an example, 10 years ago I would have salivated over a 1,200 baud modem. Now, a 56 Kbps modem seems hopelessly slow.

Carriers have been busy charging up their backbones with all the fiber and gigabit (and soon terabit) routers that they could get their hands on. Meanwhile the local loop has been languishing. With the ILECs not seeing an incentive in upgrading the copper lines, the consumers have been stuck with the same old-fashioned last-mile medium that their grandparents had. For their part, the CLECs also haven’t recognized the incentive to establish their own local loop, so they have continued with their practice of riding the ILECs’ lines to the customers. But this is all about to change, and the reason is bandwidth.

No matter how you slice it, there is no getting around the bandwidth monster, and eventually the last mile will have to get its long overdue make-over. Now, you might ask, "What about Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) technologies?" And I would answer, "What about it?" I concede that DSL is a viable technology, but for now, its success has been limited. Although we have begun to see it popping up here and there, by no means has it overtaken the market as the king of broadband access. Meanwhile, other broadband technologies have stepped in to jockey for position in the high-stakes local-loop capacity game. These technologies comprise the following:

  • Cable-Without a doubt, cable access services have shown a lot of promise so far. And why not? Cable, while not as prevalent as the telephone, reaches 60 percent of the U.S. population and has the capacity to handle high-bandwidth applications such as Video-On-Demand. While it is true that signal quality could degrade as the number of simultaneous downloads increases, advancements in cable access could drastically improve signal strength as we move into the future. A number of people in my company have cable access and are very satisfied with their service.

  • Fiber-Usage of fiber as a medium to carry data is nothing new. But having fiber in the loop would be. Fiber has proved itself as the king of mediums when it comes to the backbone. Advanced fiber technologies such as Dense Wavelength-Division Multiplexing (DWDM) have pushed the envelope on bandwidth capacity, allowing for up to 200 Gbps to be transmitted on a single optical fiber. Fiber in the loop comes in three different formats: Fiber to home, fiber to curb, and fiber to neighborhood in the order of decreasing complexity and expense. In an ideal world, fiber to the customer premise will be the perfect situation. But in the near future, we may witness fiber carried to an intermediate point (a curb or neighborhood), the optical signal converted to an electrical one, and the signal carried to the customer premise over copper lines.

    One of the biggest perceived drawbacks to fiber is cost. On the surface, fiber may seem more expensive than copper, and some studies peg the figure at a 10 percent premium over copper. But when the capacity differential is factored in, fiber emerges as a more economical solution.

  • Satellite- Satellite services, an example of which would be Direct-PC, have had some success, but one of their biggest drawbacks has been slow upstream access. The biggest benefit of satellite is ubiquity but if we start looking into two-way broadband access, they become very pricey. Could satellite technology work itself into the local loop some day? Perhaps. But for now, it is not a viable solution.

  • Radio/Microwave- This technology encompasses services such as Multipoint Multichannel Distribution Services (MMDS), Local Multipoint Distribution Services (LMDS), and Wireless Local Loop (WLL). Some of these technologies are in deployment in developing countries, where wireline connection to sites is too expensive, or impossible. Broadband access using these services is being researched, and holds a great deal of promise. This would allow CLECs to install radio transmitters on a customer’s rooftop, enabling broadband access (voice, video, data) directly to the CLEC’s network — in effect, bypassing the ILEC’s local loop altogether. A new breed of CLECs dubbed Wireless Competitive Access Providers (WCAPs), are forecasted by some to be the predominant access providers within a decade. While this prediction may be rash, it is not entirely inconceivable given the limitations of today’s local loop and the promise of broadband radio transmission.

In my estimation, fiber and radio hold the most promise for unseating the copper local loop. Only time will tell which single technology will vanquish. Then again, it may just be a combination of both. As long as they do away with the copper.

Is your local loop more like a local droop? Does your last mile seem more like 100 miles? Drop me a line and let me know.

Robert Vahid Hashemian provides us with a healthy dose of reality each month in his Reality Check column. Robert currently holds the position of Webmaster for TMCnet.com — your online resource for CTI, Internet telephony, and call center solutions. He can be reached at rhashemian@tmcnet.com.

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