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Industry Imperatives
October 2002

New Solutions Bridge The "Last Mile" Broadband Gap


Bandwidth remains in high demand, and the current economy coupled with the pressing need for the Federal Communications Commission to address related regulatory issues have done nothing to dampen customer interest. Despite that demand and interest, the fundamental problem has been in the delivery. While there is an abundance of bandwidth in the fiber-optic trunk lines that crisscross the country, the pipe that brings services over the last/first mile seems to be more like a straw.

In the enterprise, bandwidth use doubled every two years between 1979 and 1997, and there is no indication that this growth will slow. For carriers, the ability to deliver bandwidth and the services it enables them to offer is one of their primary sources for new revenue. Until now, the high cost of access has brought bandwidth deployment to a slow crawl. But new solutions are becoming available that allow carriers to deploy bandwidth on demand much more quickly and inexpensively to their customers.

These solutions span a gamut of technologies including optical fiber, free-space optics, and wireless broadband. But which types of applications are best suited to each approach? What are the tradeoffs of each technology?

In terms of bandwidth, optical fiber still offers the most (virtually unlimited) and it is still the prime choice for applications where users intend to run at 10 gigabit-plus rates, or need to span long distances. However, it also remains the most expensive option and the approach that is the most difficult to implement. In addition to the costs associated with the fiber infrastructure, the cost and inconvenience of digging up streets to lay cable is a daunting endeavor. As a result, industry analysts report that fewer than five percent of buildings worldwide are serviced by fiber today.

Changing this statistic are dark fiber infrastructure providers like Rochester, New York-based American Fiber Systems (www.americanfibersystems.com), which offers service providers and users the opportunity to lease dark fiber. According to Joe Compitello at AFS, carriers can save significant infrastructure costs by choosing to buy rather than build -- and can save all the headaches (negotiating municipal franchises, Rights of Way, and permitting) and time commitment of building the metropolitan area network (MAN) themselves. And since dark fiber infrastructure providers are carrier neutral, there is no chance that they will ever compete with their potential customers -- not always the case with incumbent local exchange carriers (ILECs) and competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs).

In addition to the initial cost savings, AFS offers its customers state-of-the-art fiber networks. Compitello explains that they install enhanced, single-mode fiber as this assures usability over the long term and is optimized for metro applications. To enhance security and reliability, AFS networks are designed using ring architecture for built-in redundancy and monitored continuously. For enterprise users, this increased security and reliability enables bandwidth-hungry applications such as real-time data mirroring and storage networking. 

For those providers that do not want to lease or deploy a wired infrastructure, free-space optics is a wireless solution that delivers high bandwidth to users (10 Mbps to 2.5 Gbps) without the need to dig trenches and install cable. Designed for commercial buildings in proximity to a metropolitan fiber ring in dense urban centers or business park environment, free-space optics can provide users with voice, data and video services at bandwidth speeds between OC-3 and OC-48 for distances up to 1,000 meters.

Unlike more traditional "wireless" technologies, free-space optical networks deliver data in the unlicensed terahertz spectrum range using invisible beams of light. Since data is beamed over the air and not via fiber-optic cable, the carrier does not have to invest in a wired infrastructure. One of the key advantages to this technology is that it is portable, and can be up and running in a matter of hours. This allows carriers to build out their broadband networks in response to customer demand and to test the profitability of a new route.

Companies like San Diego, California-based LightPointe have deployed free-space optics gear with carriers including Qwest and Telkom SA, and the technology is also being deployed to provide backhaul services for mobile wireless carriers whose bandwidth demands have driven the need for optical solutions.

Free-space optics demonstrates the highest degree of reliability when used in an optical mesh network. This improves upon the performance shown by single point-to-point and point-to-multipoint networks. The mesh network comprises short, redundant links, eliminating a single point of failure and ensuring carrier-class reliability -- even in dense fog.

Yet another option for delivering bandwidth lies in new generations of wireless, which are offering more bandwidth and greater reliability than previous generations. These systems also offer the advantage of extreme portability at competitive price points.

When looking at wireless broadband, there are two primary options to consider: nomadic wireless and fixed wireless.

Nomadic Wireless
Using a series of base stations and adaptive phased-array antenna technology, Sai Subramanian, director of marketing and product line management for Richardson, Texas - based Navini Networks believes that nomadic wireless has the potential of making broadband so easy to install and low cost, that it could become as ubiquitous as cellular. "While DSL and cable are great technologies, they have their limitations. Wireless broadband is the 'third leg of the broadband stool,' providing an easy-to-deploy and cost-effective option for carriers to provide broadband to end-users," Subramanian says.

Fixed Wireless
Operators also have a reliable way to reach more customers by dropping fixed wireless hubs on fiber periodically -- extending the reach of fiber as it is pulled down major roadways and easements for a relatively small cost. Mike Sanderson, director of sales engineering at San Diego, California-based Ensemble Communications (www.ensemble.com), a point-to-multipoint systems manufacturer for the mobile backhaul and broadband wireless markets, says, "One of the additional benefits of fixed wireless in the licensed bands is the exclusivity to the RF spectrum, meaning that when wireless really takes off, there will not be interference issues with multiple people trying to share the same spectrum as might occur at 2.4 and 5.6 GHz." Sanderson believes in order to meet this potential for limitless bandwidth, there will continue to be a demand for alternative technologies that can deliver on the "broadband now" promise, and each of these solutions has a place to grow for the foreseeable future.

(The characteristics of the two different systems are described briefly in Table 1, see below.)

Table 1

Nomadic Wireless Fixed Wireless
  • Uses base stations, adaptive phased-array antenna technology, customer premises equipment, and element management system. Able to deliver the power budget required to penetrate trees, glass, and walls while still delivering broadband data rates. 
  • Provides average wireless high-speed Internet speeds up to 1�2 Mbps per user. 
  • Nomadic capability allows end user to move freely throughout the coverage area without a wired connection. 
  • Offers zero-install � no need to install anything at customer premise. 
  • Offers true �plug and play� capability. 
  • Provides non-line-of-sight operation. 
  • Extremely scalable � allows for rapid deployment to capitalize on market demands. 
  • Provides low total cost of ownership � up to 50% lower cost than DSL or cable, up to 70% lower than fixed wireless. 
  • Primarily used to support data but can also support carrier-grade voice due to QoS capabilities. 
  • Can offer carriers the chance to extend broadband service to customers that they might otherwise be unable to support, giving them the opportunity to provide value-added service.
  • Third-generation local multipoint distribution service (LMDS) systems offer marked improvements over previous generations. 
  • Offer ability to maximize capacity and range. 
  • Delivers 100 Mbps or higher. 
  • Enables thousands of users to share capacity based on instantaneous demands. 
  • Scalable variable-length packet basis allows some third-generation systems to support all protocols equally while maintaining proper QoS levels. 
  • Time division duplexing (TDD) technology enables bandwidth asymmetry. 
  • Ideal for small and mid-sized businesses located in metropolitan areas and suburban business parks. 
  • Requires �line-of-sight transmission.� Usually designed in hubs where signal is sent from the top of one or more taller buildings to the tops of other mid-level to smaller buildings. 
  • Research indicates that a carrier can cover 90% or more of the businesses in a city with just a few base stations. 
  • TIA�s 2002 Market Review and Forecast predicts that there will be 3.46 million fixed wireless broadband subscribers worldwide.

As nomadic and fixed wireless providers tap into underserved markets, end users who need quick and affordable access to grow their business are also big beneficiaries of the technology. Jeff Weber, vice president of operations for Gigahertz, LLC -- a Wisconsin-based wireless solutions provider affiliated with Wisconsin Wireless -- offered a solution to a dilemma of a local window manufacturer that needed to expand its business, and fast. While the rest of their campus was fiber-based, economics and time dictated the need for a quick and easy deployment to expand the network. Upon consultation with Gigahertz, the company decided on a wireless solution that allowed it to get its data network running within hours, saving precious time and resources required to lay additional fiber. Clearly, the use of nomadic or fixed wireless broadband is an attractive option for many end users and it serves as an effective complementary option to a carrier�s current wired strategy.

The need for bandwidth is not going away. Carriers are trying new technologies and combinations of technologies to offer their customers the support they need quickly and cost effectively. Depending on the bandwidth needs of specific subscriber areas, carriers can "test the waters" with solutions that are more easily deployed -- but may be less robust and have lower capacity -- than fiber, or they can lease capacity without committing to building their own infrastructure. Eventually, however, broadband will be migrated to the smaller communities and second and third-tier cities through the types of cost-effective solutions that companies mentioned above deploy.

Max Schroeder is president of The InStep Group, Inc., and chairman of the TIA Value-added Reseller (VAR) Working Group. TIA is a leading trade association serving the communications and information technology industry, with proven strengths in market development, trade shows, domestic and international advocacy, standards development, and enabling e-business. Through its worldwide activities, the association facilitates business development opportunities and a competitive market environment. Visit them online at www.tiaonline.org.

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