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
ISPs 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 CLECs 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 ISPs 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 ILECs 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 hadnt
bothered or understood how to check the systems 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 couldnt 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.
WHO OWNS THE LAST MILE?
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 customers 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 customers premise; or rent the currently
available line from the ILEC and co-locate its equipment within the ILECs 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 ILECs 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 worlds 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 havent 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
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: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
- 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 customers rooftop, enabling
broadband access (voice, video, data) directly to the CLECs network in
effect, bypassing the ILECs 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 todays 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.