In a perfect world, fiber networks would be ubiquitous by now. After all, deployments grew substantially over the past decade and show no signs of slowing. But this is not a perfect world, and the reality of high costs and complex deployments is chipping away at the gigabit-everywhere vision. The hunt is on for a technology that is cheaper, faster and easier to deploy. Could Gfast be the fix that enables gigabit broadband to truly become universal?
Obstacles versus demand
"The major obstacles to covering a large percentage of an incumbent network owner's footprint with gigabit broadband are the cost and time to market for bringing fiber closer to customers. These hurdles increase the closer you want to get with fiber deployments, making ubiquitous fiber to the premises (FTTP) coverage impossible in most cases," said ADTRAN Portfolio Management Broadband Solutions Werner Heinrich, in an interview.
Failure to achieve pervasive coverage is not tenable since gigabit broadband has proven essential to almost any geographic area's development today. Education, economies, healthcare -- all are positively impacted by ultra-broadband availability. Tests in early adopter cities have delivered undisputable advantages.
For example, Chattanooga saw unemployment to 4.1% from 7.8%, and wages increase thanks to gigabit broadband and the presence of Volkswagen, which would not have chosen the Tennessee city without ultra-broadband, Mayor Andy Berke told the Fiber to the Home Council last year. Indeed, ubiquitous gigabit broadband led to direct and indirect economic gains for the city. A struggling city found itself profitable and thriving again, when businesses of all sizes from large corporations to home-based businesses could access high-speed Internet, he said.
"It changed our conceptions of who we are and what is possible," Berke told USA Today. "Before we had never thought of ourselves as a technology city."
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But future prosperity in the broader economic sense isn't the only market driver. Network owners see growing demand from consumers and subscribers too. New applications such as 4K video streaming (downstream and up), emerging 8K TV, virtual reality and augmented reality (VR/AR) and an avalanche of upcoming Internet of Things (IoT) devices fuel consumer demand.
"Gigabit competition is on and getting hot. It was originally initiated by Google Fiber and now pushed by the likes of Comcast and AT&T," said Heinrich. "Now there are national targets, regulatory obligations and public funding driving it too."
That brings everything back to the obstacles in making gigabit broadband sufficiently widespread to meet the burgeoning demand. (See Get 'Dig Once' Out of Its Rut.)
"The cost for fiber deployment usually only allows full FTTP in a cherry-picking mode for high-density urban areas, and the deployment time caused by the need for digging/trenching and entering the customers' homes or apartments makes it a commercially risky endeavor requiring a huge upfront investment," said Heinrich.
Where Gfast fits
It is now imperative to ways to connect the last mile of high-speed connectivity with the home, building or other structure. The question: How best to do that?
"Gfast is the fastest to deploy and most economical solution to achieving gigabit speeds for most urban and suburban subscribers," said Robin Mersh, CEO of The Broadband Forum, in an interview. "It is not the only solution, but it plays a key role where deploying FTTH is too slow and or too complex."
However, the challenges of that last bit of gigabit capable connectivity is not always contained to the distance from street curb to building. Multi-dwelling units (MDUs), containing residential apartments or office suites, require connectivity stretch to floors and units as seamlessly as from curbs to buildings. The reach into interior units demands Fiber-to-the-Floor (FTTF), which connects fiber to the building (FTTB) architectures on one end to copper and coax cabling in each unit on the other end. This is a compromise in both cost and delivery, as the cost is medium and delivery is shy of the promised gigabit speeds. The search is on to find a better, less compromising solution.
"Gfast is used where full FTTH service deployment is not practical: this could be in historic cities where zoning or permitting to dig up streets is prohibitive or in apartments, high rises and condominiums where tenet disruption is frowned upon," Kurt Raaflaub, head of global product marketing at ADTRAN, told UBB2020. "Just these two scenarios alone can account for one-half to three-quarters of the population of a city."
Gfast has evolved in a short timeframe and its real world practicality makes it a top choice in resolving these last mile connectivity issues. (See Gfast Stampede Starts in 2019 – Report.)
"Gfast -- in particular when looking at the second generation of products supporting 212 MHz according to Amendment 3 of the Standard and innovative features like Dynamic Time Allocation (DTA) -- supports symmetrical gigabit services over twisted pair copper or coax, thus allowing the reuse of the existing infrastructure on the last meters from a distribution point, pole or manhole into the building as well as inside the building," said Heinrich. "Not having to deploy fiber for these parts means a huge relief for deployment cost and time."
Fiber to Gfast and back
In short, Gfast is an enabler of widespread broadband and will be used to speed deployments.
"Gfast will absolutely play a major role in delivering gigabit broadband. The latest version of Gfast, Amendment 3, will deliver 1Gbp/s services over twisted pair and coax starting in 2018 and beyond," said Mersh. "We see it as a companion technology to fiber, supporting a faster rollout."
But it's not just connectivity across fiber and coax that operators and vendors must address in order to ensure consistency in speed for users. "A key element in making a success of Gfast is ensuring that the market for this technology is open," added Mersh.
— Pam Baker is freelance technology and business writer. Follow her on Twitter @Bakercom1.