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The FttH Versus Cable Debate Misses the Point

I recently followed an interesting international discussion on FttH vs. cable.

With the fiber to the home (FttH) debate hotting up, driven by the possibility of using FttH as the new infrastructure for the digital economy, the cable companies are putting up a stiff fight, both in Europe (Netherlands) and the USA, claiming FttH is not necessary, and that DOCSIS 3.0 can do the job just as well.

In these debates the longer-term national interest is often disregarded. The debate is confined to the technology—what it can and cannot do—and it also concentrates on a rather short-term timeframe, say of the next five years.

Interestingly, even most cable companies admit that ultimately FttH is the best infrastructure solution. But this message is being diluted as the focus of the debate then moves from the underlying digital economy to HDTV content.

In order to match the flexibility of fibre the cablecos argue that with switched video technology they can actually compensate for most, if not all, of the advantages that fibre has. And there is no doubt that, based on current Internet and entertainment requirements, cable broadband (especially DOCSIS 3.0) can do the job. But and increasing number of applications in both entertainment and other video-based (communication) services require a synchronous use of the infrastructure, and cable does have some severe limitations here.

In the long term it will be difficult for cable companies to compete with FttH, but they know that, for the time being at least, the business case for Internet-based FttH is very shaky to say the least.

The infrastructure situation is however, more urgent for the telcos because, based on current Internet and entertainment requirements for the majority of users, cable does have an advantage. However, the real question is can we afford not to upgrade to the FttH infrastructure that can assist us in addressing many other economic and social problems?

Only when a national approach is adopted towards infrastructure and a proper debate is taking place on what is needed in such an environment—what the opportunities and possibilities are and, for example, the extent of the government’s commitment to e-health, smart grids, smart cities and tele-education- will it be possible to make a proper assessment of FttH vs. cable.

There is no doubt that the present social, economic and environmental crises call for a trans-sector approach and that we should look at what other national applications can be serviced by utilising the telecoms infrastructure. This can only be established at governmental level and in particular by the national leaders.

In my view, what we should be asking ourselves is whether we intend to continue operating in a linear fashion—an approach that is placing a great deal of stress on many of our systems. If the (I believe, obvious) answer is no, then the next question should be how can we do it differently?

There is widespread acceptance that, for all sectors, ICT will take a critical role in this process. That being the case, it is vital that a national decision be reached as to what will be the best telecoms infrastructure to assist us in addressing some of those big problem areas. The answer is not difficult—it will have to be an FttH based national wholesale network.

In the end it is not a technical debate but one about policy and strategy. At BuddeComm, we believe that only when it is considered in terms of the national economic and social benefits will it make sense to fast-track an FttH network. Without strong government commitments and incentives there is no business case for a rapid upgrade of the current copper and coax networks.

By Paul Budde, Managing Director of Paul Budde Communication

Paul is also a contributor of the Paul Budde Communication blog located here.

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