Monday, August 6, 2007

CommScope Sees BrightPath for Cable FTTP

August 6, 2007

Commscope has emerged as the early leader in supplying cable operators with fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) solutions targeted at greenfields and low-density regions.

CommScope says it has deployed BrightPath, its FTTP solution, with three major cable operators, and has installations pending with another three MSOs.

The BrightPath system is billed for low-density areas or greenfields and new master communities, where developers may insist on FTTP because there's a perceived premium value assigned to homes attached to a strand of glass.

"So, in these cases, it is more about answering the call for FTTH from developers, and not about bandwidth," says CommScope's director of business development, David Morrocco.

The BrightPath system is designed to allow an operator to leverage its existing hybrid fiber/coax (HFC) plant. The platform consists of a special fiber node, supplied by Aurora Networks, and a home-side network interface unit (NIU) that converts signals from optical to electrical. Each subscriber is served by a single fiber drop, which transports 1550 nm down and 1310 nm in the reverse path. Up to 32 subscribers can be served on a single distribution fiber.

CommScope's manager of application engineering, Mark Vogel, calls BrightPath a "cyber version of an HFC plant."

The system is also made to be compatible with an operator's existing headends, cable modem termination systems, billing systems, cable modems, and digital set-tops.

"Operational systems and practices are unchanged, so headend and support personnel do not have to be retrained," Morrocco explains.

Although the economics can vary based on deployment densities, costs for installing BrightPath are within 20 percent of HFC new-builds, and about 50 percent better compared to the current PON-based scheme used by Verizon, according to CommScope.

In lower-density networks, Morrocco adds, BrightPath can cost less than HFC, because active electronics, save for the node, are eliminated.

Motorola and Scientific Atlanta have not announced any deployments or trial work with cable operators for their respective approaches. Alloptic, Inc., however, has gained some traction for its fiber-fed "MicroNode" system with operators such as Bend Broadband and Armstron Cable. Some Tier 1 MSOs are also exploring MicroNode deployments, according to Shane Eleniak, Alloptic's VP for marketing and business development.

Wave7 Optics is also approaching MSOs about deploying FTTP in targeted situations, but announcements have been few and far between. In 2006,CableOne teamed with Wave 7 to deploy an FTTP network serving a new 7,000-home area in Rio Rancho, N.M.

Morrocco says CommScope completed its first BrightPath deployment in August 2006. The company began shipping the system commercially about six months ago.

"We feel like we've hit the market in terms of having the right solution for cable operators," he says.

But CommScope is not disclosing names of its deployment and trial partners. According to multiple sources familiar with the system, however,Time Warner Cable, Bresnan Communications, CableOne , and Sunflower Broadband are among those giving BrightPath a look at some level.

Among that group, Sunflower Broadband, an operator based in Lawrence, Kan., is testing the BrightPath system in a neighborhood of about 40 to 50 homes.

Sunflower, which serves more than 30,000 subscribers, completed the installation near the end of July and is now conducting extensive tests of the FTTP platform, according to Patrick Knorr, the operator's general manager. Sunflower has been running fiber to businesses for nearly five years to deliver voice and high-speed Internet services, but has more recently started to ponder FTTP's potential in residential environments. Although home contractors may be insisting on FTTP in new developments, that's not the primary driver for Sunflower.

Sunflower, Knorr says, discovered that it makes more economic sense -- at least on paper -- to deploy FTTP in low-density, semi-rural areas, or to high-end homes on large lots, because plant and maintenance costs appear to be much lower than they are with HFC.

"I'd say we're 95 percent comfortable with what we're seeing," Knorr says of Sunflower's experience so far with BrightPath. The operator, he adds, is still ironing out some "minor" technology issues, including how Sunflower might provide backup power.

If BrightPath checks out, Sunflower may switch to that architecture for all greenfield construction and possibly use it to replace older plant in low-density areas. Knorr estimates that just 5 percent of Sunflower's plant, serving about 1 percent of its customer base, might fall into that category.

Knorr is also unconcerned if cable's involvement with FTTP in certain situations might create perceptions that HFC is in its waning days. In fact, he believes, as other MSOs do, that HFC has plenty of punch left.

While FTTP "is the next quantum leap forward, HFC is an extraordinarily powerful product that's embedded, and we've advanced that so it has [as much] capacity today as a fiber network. As time marches on, there will be a point, maybe 10 years from now, that we'll need fiber to meet customer needs."

And Sunflower isn't the only cable party to suggest that FTTP could play a part in the evolution of the HFC network. Last fall, a leaked "strategic assessment" from CableLabs titled Cable Response Alternatives To FTTP put forth the notion that it might be more economical for MSOs to take fiber all the way to the home… but not until node sizes reach below 125 homes passed. Today, plenty of HFC systems still operate node sizes of 500 or 250 homes.

Another indicator that FTTP will play a role in MSO strategies, either in greenfield pockets or as a longer-term evolutionary step, is the industry's recently created "RF Over Glass" study group, helmed by Time Warner Cable engineering exec Paul Brooks. That project, according to people familiar with it, is taking a closer look at the technology to determine whether it's necessary to take things to the next level and develop industry standards that aim to develop interoperability between vendors and drive down costs.

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