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Lessons of the past point to fibre’s future

By Ronan Kelly, chief technology officer for EMEA and APAC at ADTRAN

Fibre technologists have always been in the imagination business, whether they’ve known it or not. Having been closely involved with thought leaders in the industry through my engagements with operators and the FTTH Council Europe, I’ve seen the passion and intelligence of great technologists dedicated to amazingly creative architectures and obscure but important technology tweaks. Network innovation is essential, but at the end of the day this is all just plumbing. At least, if not more, important are the new applications and services that we can use the network for.

Fibre to the home (FTTH) in Europe has made great strides, yet the vision of ubiquitous fibre broadband remains elusive. It has taken 20 years to achieve seven per cent FTTH penetration, mainly by exploiting the density of our great European cities. While 15 million homes connected represents a great deal of hard work, the truth is that this barely scratches the surface in terms of the progress of this most important of broadband technologies, in arguably the richest and most highly developed region on earth.

One of the most widely ascribed reasons for this slow progress is the limited imagination of consumers. Millions of potential FTTH subscribers are all too willing to dismiss the bandwidth of the future, because they can’t possibly imagine how they would use it. Overcoming this obstacle was the challenge at the heart of the experiential ‘My Fibre Journey’ exhibit that has been a popular feature of recent FTTH Council Europe events.

Having initiated the concept and enthused colleagues on the World of Applications Committee, the completed project turned out to be part education seminar, part art installation, and part walk down memory lane – taking advantage of how people think, to make them think differently about FTTH. The central premise of ‘My Fibre Journey’ is that anyone with questions about why they need the bandwidth of FTTH only need look back at the past to gain a proper perspective on the future.

Humans like to climb mountains “because they are there” and, unlike any other species, we enjoy the motivation (and, eventually, the satisfaction) of contemplating our achievements. Hence, we can only get a full appreciation of where we are going – and why we are bothering to go there – when we realise where we’ve come from.

The exhibit’s four zones represent four ages in the evolution of Internet access: dial-up, ADSL, VDSL and, representing a near-future age, FTTH. Visitors to each zone get the opportunity to pick up old gadgets – a dial-up modem, an early digital camera, a mobile phone the size of a brick – and reminisce about long-forgotten days when this stuff was considered cutting-edge. (In fact this was the most enjoyable part of the groundwork for the exhibit; combing through a wish list of dusty old kit in a state of mellow nostalgia.)

Vintage rotary dial telephoneIt’s only when confronted with the physical manifestations of a bygone age that it really hammers home how far we’ve travelled on our technology journey. Looking back reminds us how many people dismissed the bandwidth of the future in 1990, 2000 or 2010, and still went on to embrace that bandwidth; driven by new applications, devices and services they couldn’t have foreseen that they would need.

The vision of Steve Jobs provides the ultimate insight. He knew that customers often don’t know what they want until you show it to them. The launch of the iPad five years ago created an entirely new category of equipment, bridging the gap between the portability of a mobile phone and the larger screen of a laptop. Back then when I mused over who would actually buy it, I never envisaged the broad demographic that this and other tablet devices would appeal to. Today, writing this on a tablet, I doubt there are many households in the developed world who don’t own at least one.

As was the case with tablets, once customers get their hands on a fibre connection, they cannot imagine ever giving it up. Yet the difficulty that consumers (and even some businesses) have imagining what they will do with the extra bandwidth is clearly holding back the acceptance of FTTH.

Resistance to change is also manifesting itself in a worrying trend for the FTTH industry, leading to rejection rates that are the bane of operators across Europe. What this means is that things like minor installation disruption or a marginal increase in monthly cost become absolute deal breakers.

To reverse these trends will require education as well as more opportunities for consumers to experience ultra-fast broadband services for themselves – even if delivered over high-quality copper networks initially. However, initiatives like the ‘My Fibre Journey’ exhibit only scratch the surface of what’s required to shift perceptions across a market as large as the EU28.

In my view, this is also an opportunity for governments to take on  a major role in stimulating end-user demand through sustained and wide-ranging education campaigns. This would boost competition, leading to wider deployment of new FTTH networks by private sector operators, while simultaneously improving the business case where governments need to intervene to address areas of market failure.

Awareness campaigns will be vital if Europe is serious about reaching the Digital Agenda target for ultra-high speed broadband – which aims to see at least half of all Europe’s consumers subscribing to 100Mb/s connections by 2020, just five short years from now. If governments set their sights anywhere near the ambition of other major public information campaigns (such as anti-smoking, for instance) then they could make a real difference to the adoption of FTTH in Europe.

Helping end users understand what a fibre connection means for them will unleash their imagination. Only then will consumers greet the installation technicians with open arms when they arrive to install the fibre connection. In turn, the economies of scale – enjoyed by the original telephone system – will become available to operators, accelerating deployments and reducing costs for both network providers and consumers. Can we imagine a future where everyone has a fibre connection?

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