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Challenges Of Fiber Networks Persist For Nontraditional ISPs

The recent announcement about Google Fiber’s acquisition of Webpass, a 13-year old Internet service provider focusing on businesses and residential connections, brings into focus the challenges faced by many ISPs and fiber providers.

As “nontraditional” solutions providers, such as Google Fiber, expand their national fiber networks, the challenge of “Fiber To The X,” otherwise known as FTTx — a collective term for various optical fiber delivery topologies that are categorized according to where the fiber terminates — and last-mile access continues to be an issue. The predominant reason is due to the large commercial buildings with multiple tenants who have typically signed multiyear exclusive access deals. In turn, these contracts restrict competition or, at best, force those wishing to gain access to buy tails to access last-mile connectivity in these “locked-down” buildings. The challenge becomes one of offering a competitive service with the additional access charges needing to be accommodated.

It comes as no surprise that fiber operators would be looking at alternate solutions to extend their reach to the market. With rapid developments occurring in wireless technologies, we should expect to see more and more deals such as this between fiber operators and those with innovative wireless last-mile solutions.

It is clear to note that wireless technology is not new, nor is coupling together fiber and wireless to create a solution. After all, that’s all there is to a mobile solution — fiber backhaul between towers combined with a radio (your mobile handset).

Beyond the Google Fiber deal with Webpass, we are starting to see a shift in a number of countries with regard to the way in which the Internet is being delivered to consumers and businesses alike. One has to question the “need” for fiber to the home or enterprise when there are so many cost effective and reliable wireless solutions that are readily available.

In emerging markets where fiber will never be deployed to the home and, in many instances, enterprise, we are seeing a continued proliferation of MiFi devices — a portable broadband device that allows multiple end users to share a mobile broadband Internet connection and create an ad-hoc network — hitting the market. With mobile 4G speeds certainly capable of streaming products like Apple TV, one has to question what capabilities 5G will support. It brings into question the entire business model for FTTx operators. Is there a need for fiber beyond backhaul between mobile base stations?

Speeds of 1GB as offered by some fiber operators is outstanding, yet it is a speed that is unnecessary for most applications and thus becomes a “nice to have” solution. I recently purchased a 4G MiFi router for $45. This device supports 4G, can connect up to six devices and has a battery standby time exceeding 150 hours. With current download speeds of 50Mps and upload speeds of 20Mbps being achieved on the local mobile network, this certainly does the job for the average user.

Last mile will always remain a challenge for fiber operators. Let’s hope we continue to see deals such as the Google Fiber/Webpass acquisition. Additional creative solutions used to address the last-mile access challenges are coming into mainstream, which is good news for consumers and businesses alike. Ironically, exclusive multiyear access arrangements that continue to restrict access to many sites are what’s driving innovation in the wireless space.

Sean Bergin is co-founder and president of APTelecom, a telecom and fiber consulting company.