Among the many lifestyle changes that came about as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the shift to working and learning from anywhere will continue to have long lasting impacts on our networks. Rather than planning for years down the road, service providers are having to contend with increased network needs at what feels like hyper speed.
Jack Burton and Davis Strauss, both Principals at Broadband Success Partners, joined the Fiber Broadband Association’s Fiber for Breakfast to discuss the future of HFC networks and upgrade options suited for consumer demand.
“Fiber has been a mainstay in the cable industry for at least 20 years,” Burton said, noting that the hybrid-fiber coaxial has long been a major component in many cable networks. But to now keep up with consumer network demands, those operators are needing to reevaluate what technology is best suited for their network needs.
Burton and Struss explained that cable operators have a few options for updating those HFC legacy networks. With a low split, an operator can utilize DOCSIS 3.1 and get a little more downstream speed than 3.0, they noted, or a high split could achieve higher upstream speeds.
“Another alternative is a new technique called Full Duplex DOCSIS (FDX) where you can transmit and receive over a certain large range of frequencies,” Burton explained, but that route requires changes to the actual architecture of the network.
When looking at alternative solutions with Fiber to the Home, Burton said provider preference is with PON networks.
“EPON is very common among telephone operators and many cable operators. GPON is also common among cable operators. XGS-PON is a little less common, but is used for higher speeds,” Burton noted. “You can get 10 Gigabit symmetrical over XGS-PON. And lastly is NGPON2, which is really only adopted by Verizon, could be used for multiple 10 Gigabit services or by combining several of them you could get 40 Gbps or more.”
Burton noted, however, that NGPON2 is very expensive due to its reliance on DWDM technology at every customer.
Strauss and Burton looked at a series of decision factors when comparing legacy HFC network upgrades to FTTH alternatives, including market conditions, construction & terminal equipment, service disruption, technician training, maintenance and costs (both OpEx and CapEx).
“The first factor to consider is market conditions--the density of the market that you’re in--and what are the demographics,” Strauss said. “Finally, the competitive nature of your market is key.”
Fiber for Breakfast attendees completed a survey before the start of the episode that identified 42% of provider attendees compete against a fiber provider in their market.
“That is obviously a critical factor in the decision as to what your upgrade path will be,” Strauss said. “What are the offerings of the competition and if they’re at speeds you can’t achieve, for example with your current network’s upgrade path, perhaps fiber would make a lot of sense.”
Construction & Terminal Equipment
“An operator might be concerned that when they build a fiber to the home network, they’d have to replace all of their outside plant coax and with fiber and all of their drops with fiber drops and that they can’t reuse any of their coax networks,” Burton relayed. “In reality, new types of fiber can reduce those construction costs.”
Bend insensitive fiber is able to run around corners and in small spaces without over stressing, he explained, and with fiber, new duct systems allow for many fibers to be placed in a very small space.
“Of course, the difference in underground construction depends on the network size and complexity,” Burton noted.
When considering upgrading an HFC network, tap plates, tap housings, drop cables and splitters are all hidden construction costs necessary for upgrading.
“Even if you’re just changing nodes and changing amplifiers into nodes, you’re still going to disrupt customers,” Burton said. “Every outage annoys customers, making them more likely to switch to a competitor.”
Bandwidth changes cause outages and so do changes to gateway-based architecture, he said. “Again, fiber to the home wins because you build it as an overbuild or overlay to your coax. It wouldn’t cause any of those disruptions.”
“With a complex network, you have to detect signal leakage, you have to measure it, report on it and you have to repair any leaks. And if you’re expanding your bandwidth, now you’ve got to detect leaks at new frequencies and you have to worry about new sources of leaks,” Burton listed. “With a fiber network, there is no preventative maintenance required. You only have to service it when it breaks.”
Operational and Capital Expenditures
For operating costs, FTTH is the clear winner when it comes to cost savings. As Burton noted, fiber networks do not have operational costs for preventative maintenance, and power costs are also not relevant as they are in HFC networks. When it comes to repair costs, Burton and Strauss shared findings from Broadband Success Partners that indicate HFC network repair costs total over $378k annually, compared to $38k annually for fiber network repairs.
“One of the major factors you’re going to consider is your CapEx spent on upgrading coax is a lot less expensive that upgrading or building fiber plants,” Burton said.
For a modest HFC upgrade, the cost is quite low, he explained. “But if you’re going to do one of the more robust upgrades to enable multiple gigabits per second service, it could get quite costly.”
But, fiber deployment costs are also significant.
“The big difference between fiber and coax is operating costs,” Burton repeated. “Once you install a FTTH network, no power, no routine maintenance, no signal leakage, and no metallic connectors to promote.”
Burton and Strauss agree, the overall winner for upgrading those old legacy HFC networks is fiber.
Listen to the full episode on the Fiber for Breakfast podcast here.