ANALYSIS & OPINION

Could new innovations in copper technology stunt fibre’s growth?

With most of the industry focusing on fibre and high-bandwidth microwave systems, Max Penfold, Sales Manager at UTEL, reveals why copper’s new secret weapon could stunt fibre’s growth.

With the recent growth in smartphone and tablet users, alongside the development of hundreds of thousands of applications, consumers around the globe are using and expecting availability and access to more and more mobile data. According to a 2013 Cisco report, by the end of 2014 the number of mobile connected devices will exceed the number of people on earth, and by 2018 there will be nearly 1.4 mobile devices per capita. Global mobile data volumes have nearly doubled every year, showing that now is the time for a 4G infrastructure to be put into place.

The current challenge for mobile and fixed operators alike is the problem of providing backhaul to individual cells. After only just overcoming the demand for 3G, a world of 4G subscriptions is currently in motion, with the US, Japan and the majority of Europe already part of the 4G world.

With the era of the smart home also on the horizon, data volumes will continue to increase and customers will expect and demand an even more reliable network. The more those customers rely on these smart technologies, the more they will notice when the service is disrupted.

Determining a present solution

The telecoms industry seems to be primarily focussed on fibre as the answer to this growing demand. While it is true that fibre can provide backhaul for all mobile data networks and boasts the ability to provide almost unlimited data throughput, there are of course downsides. Fibre’s disadvantages are often down-played, but the main drawbacks include being expensive to deploy and at present having low penetration.

A second option being looked at to meet the growing demand is high-bandwidth microwave solutions. However, like fibre, this is also expensive and unsuitable in urban and suburban areas where line of sight can be challenging to find.

Consequently, as pressure on networks continues to grow, innovative technology vendors are beginning to look at old reliable copper solutions more and more to provide an interim solution whilst fibre infrastructure rollout is completed. With copper lines still making up the majority of home connections, utilising them would provide a cost-effective and economically-justified outcome. Solutions, such as G.fast, are widely available to provide the speed and use the copper infrastructure to offer services that end users require from their devices.

New innovations in copper technology

The real fact is that customers do not care which solution, be it fibre or copper, is providing their network service. All that matters to them is being able to get the services and high speed connection from their home devices with just a touch of a button, with no complications and at a cheap price.

However, copper lines that already exist do have limitations. Copper infrastructure requires interconnect technology, which has to be manually managed, resulting in a higher cost and risk of human errors. This provides a huge deterrent for operators when choosing to adopt new high speed copper solution technology for backhaul infrastructure.

Thanks to some innovative technology, vendors and solution providers, though, there is an answer to this problem which is beginning to be realised which could prove to be copper’s secret weapon. The interconnection can be made automated, instead of being manual, and can remove the drawback of high expense and risk of human error, and instead allow operators to take back control of network management. A fully managed system like this will enable operators to easily provide new services to customers almost on-demand, which is crucial in this fast-paced digital age and the first step in achieving one of the operators main goals of attracting and retaining happy, loyal customers.

Temporary solution

This fully managed system is not a pipedream and work is already underway to enable the vision to be realised at an affordable cost for operators. Does copper’s secret weapon mean, then, that the growth of fibre will be stunted for a few more years?

While there is no doubt that fibre has many advantages over copper and in years to come, will be the main source of connectivity, for now, it is too costly to be rolled out across the whole continent. However more is being invested in fibre by the day to get, particularly urban areas, connected to superfast speeds. However, to meet growing consumer demands for those who dwell in more rural locations, where fibre is unlikely to be installed for a few more years, operators are not dismissing the copper lines already in the ground.

Fibre will always be the technology of choice and investment in it is undoubtedly going to grow, but there may be one final hurrah. The question is, will this stunt the progress being made in delivering a 21st century Europe-wide fibre network?

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