Why getting ‘last mile’ connectivity right is the key to unlocking universal high speed broadband

fttxBy Neil Bird, 3M

Some of the hurdles to high-speed broadband roll-out, particularly around fibre deployments, are disappearing: there is greater access to fibre; fibre is easier to install; the cost differentiator between copper and fibre is negligible and the price of active electronics for fibre networks is also decreasing. 

However, among the challenges that still exist there remains a fairly large one: namely, connecting customers or businesses to the network.  This is where so much of the work and cost is concentrated and the issue has to be addressed if the economics of high speed broadband roll-out are to be viable.

In particular, the lack of skilled labour to support fibre installation, plus the sheer amount of time spent deploying ‘last drop’ network connections are inhibiting factors.  This work is at the very heart of delivering broadband services at the point of need and regardless of investment elsewhere in the network, the last drop is what really matters, because without it, there is no service to the customer.

The good news is that technology innovation is breaking down those barriers, simplifying and speeding up deployment, reducing cost and bringing fibre installation within the reach of many more organisations.  Indeed, we are seeing new network consortia, content owners and even rural landowners looking at new product innovations as a means to leapfrog legacy limitations and bring broadband to consumers and businesses.

Of course, this is all assuming a future heavily dependent on fibre, but it is important to bear in mind that copper still has a lot to offer.  In fact, due to the diversity of end user requirements and location, we are likely to see a combination of fibre, copper and wireless technologies sitting alongside each other in a variety of permutations.  Today’s telecommunications industry is realising that there is no such thing as ‘one solution fits all’ and instead, are deploying imaginative business models to achieve their aims.

That said, many new stakeholders in the broadband market are choosing to go straight to fibre as the core of their services, because it makes more sense to install just once and then build on that network infrastructure – again, in a blend of technologies – in years to come.  In terms of potential capacity, nothing can rival fibre, so if the cost difference between copper and fibre is minimal, then the return-on-investment case for fibre is high.

We are seeing examples of private networks where fibre has been direct-buried in rural land (or even as aerial fibre), then broadcasting high speed broadband out to local communities using wireless technology.  These networks are then connecting back to the network, whether renting fibre from regional MANs or national incumbent operators.

Some of the thinking and inventiveness behind today’s broadband pioneers is inspiring and new advances in technology are helping to achieve their aspirations.   For instance, the latest generation of cable termination and splicing products are designed to provide a consistent quality of installation. There is no room for ambiguity: the resulting connections either do or do not work.  These products are also easier to use, thus eliminating the need for specialist training, so new crews can be brought up to speed rapidly and the market is opened up new suppliers who are less familiar with fibre, for example copper installers, electrical and AV firms.

Other inventions include connections that have been pre-terminated in the factory, or do not require any on-site fibre polishing (conventionally a task that requires a degree of skill, patience and no risk of contamination from dust or other materials).

All these new inventions mean that more networks can be completed in less time, so on-site work of fibre deployment becomes more comparable with copper networking.   However, it is also essential to think about product flexibility, because so many factors are hard to determine until installation is being carried out, such as exact cable lengths or termination requirements.  For this reason, installers may wish to also look at hardened field-mounted connectors for drop cable installation.

What is essential to remember is that there is no single ‘wonder’ product and that our future networks depend on solutions that are not only flexible within themselves, but can integrate with other products and systems.  Reaching that end-goal of universal high-speed broadband is going to require a flexible, collaborative mindset that embraces innovation and change.  Product has a role to play, but so does imagination, tenacity and a willingness to work together.

3M will be demonstrating its range of broadband solutions, across fibre and copper, at this year’s Broadband World Forum.

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