DENVER A number of companies are laying the groundwork to offer residential fiber on a broad scale as early as next year, according to this week's National Fiber Optic Engineers Conference (NFOEC). This trend indicates that the advent of high-speed data access has revived interest in fiber to the home, after huge costs and an indifferent public had dashed initial hopes for the technology.
BellSouth began offering fiber to the home this year, and company researchers said they expect sales to pick up in 2001. Meanwhile, equipment providers such as Marconi Corp. plc and OnePath Networks Inc. were at NFOEC to show off complete fiber-to-the-home architectures. All three use passive optical splitting to distribute the high-speed signal to individual homes.
Given the lack of standards for fiber to the home, all three have developed architectures that include equipment both for the central office and for the home itself. Some initiatives within the Full Services Access Networks forum are discussing fiber-optic transmission to the home, but they don't include video. "So, we believe they are aimed at the SoHo small-office/home-office or midrange businesses, but not at the home," said Ken Neighbors, vice president of worldwide marketing for OnePath.
Interest in fiber to the home is increasing simply because costs have fallen enough to make the idea feasible. "The only reason there wasn't fiber to the home before is because you couldn't meet cost requirements for the service providers to make money," Neighbors said. "The phone companies would run a fiber to every home if they could."
BellSouth first studied fiber to the home in 1989 but decided the costs were too high and the demand too low. The addition of data and video traffic to fiber-optic feeds, however, has sparked new interest in the technology.
A presentation by Glenn Mahony, a senior member of BellSouth's exploratory technical group, outlined the regional Bell operating companies' fiber-to-the-home plans.
The architecture that BellSouth tested in 400 homes last year consisted of a two-cable feed one line for data and one for cable TV. The cables used a 1,550-nanometer wavelength of light for the downstream feed and 1,310 nm for the upstream feed. Telephony wasn't included in the trials.
Both fiber-optic feeds went through two stages of splitters. The first stage divided the feed into 10 streams that reached poles or pedestals for particular neighborhoods. Those streams were then subdivided into three streams to reach individual houses.
Different types of cabling were used at each stage. Standard fiber-optic cables stretched from the central office to the first splitting stage. From there, "distribution fiber" was used to reach the second splitting stage, where signals were assigned to specific homes.
Two cables would connect to each home through a BellSouth fiber interface device on the outside of the structure. From there, specially characterized inside cable would carry the signal to the optical network terminal inside the home and then to PCs and television sets.
The lack of standards for the technology prompted BellSouth to develop much of its own equipment and, for parts of the architecture, characterize its own fiber-optic cable, Mahony said.
BellSouth made its first commercial sale of the architecture in June and hopes to begin volume sales in 2001, but a few touch-ups will be needed. Perhaps most important is that the separate data and video cables add up to an expensive installation and will have to be combined in order to make volume deployment possible, Mahony said.
Marconi displayed its own home-fiber product at the show: a box capable of delivering voice and video traffic, cable TV and data. Marconi's architecture also splits the fiber-optic feed in two, but it uses only one cable: Coarse wave-division multiplexing assigns video feeds to the 1,550-nm wavelength and voice and data to 1,310 nm.
The system gets its feed from Marconi equipment installed at the central office. From there to the home, the signals travel across an all-passive network, meaning the optical signals are not converted into electrical bits and bytes until they reach their destination. Marconi's solution, like BellSouth's, first delivers the signal to the general neighborhood and then uses a splitter to send feeds to individual residences.
The home receives a 10 Base T Ethernet feed for data, cable or set-top video (depending on the service provider's preference), and multiple lines of telephony. Marconi has three trials ready to start by the end of the year and claims to have received eight orders for the system.
OnePath Networks (Princeton, N.J.) is likewise preparing a residential-fiber product. Unlike Marconi, which drew on expertise with fiber-optic transmission, OnePath is building on experience with radio-frequency signals, particularly those from satellite feeds.
OnePath's standard-definition TV product line delivers satellite-dish feeds to apartment buildings and other multiple-dwelling units, bringing the signal into the building and then using splitters to deliver it to individual units. Newer versions of the product have added cable-TV and data feeds.
Based on that experience, OnePath now feels confident it can use fiber-optic cabling to deliver a multitude of services to the home. The company's HomePath architecture, which was announced in June, would use one fiber-optic cable to deliver four telephone lines, a data connection and TV signals from cable or a satellite dish.
Those signals would all originate at the service provider's central office via a HomePath box. To send the signals to neighborhoods, OnePath would rely on a proprietary splitter technology already in use with SDTV that can divide a signal into 16 streams without overly diluting the power to each stream.
Inside the home, OnePath's optical media unit would receive the signals and, using a "smart splitter," deliver them to the proper appliances. Eventually, OnePath hopes to provide home networking using this setup, said Neighbors.
Cable companies are particularly interested in HomePath because the architecture is compliant with the data over cable system interface spec (Docsis) and would supplant cable modems while adding services. OnePath plans to demonstrate HomePath at the Western Cable Show in December.