Friday, July 20, 2012

You Might Not Recognize U.S. Telecom in 10 Years

"Every place we have FiOS, we are going to kill the copper," Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam recently said. "We are going to just take it out of service." That should hardly be controversial statement. The whole idea behind fiber to the home is to replace the copper access network.

Other Verizon assertions raise more issues, but should not. "Areas that are more rural and more sparsely populated, we have got LTE built that will handle all of those services and so we are going to cut the copper off there," says McAdam.

For some, that means "dooming" rural users to slower services. At some level, it is hard to challenge the assertion. Rural areas have long loops. Long loops mean poor DSL speed, and costly fiber upgrades. The former means that where copper exists, broadband access speed will be limited.

But the business case for optical fiber on long rural loops, without benefit of subsidies, is challenging, and always has been. Some will argue that Verizon, and other incumbent telcos, have an obligation to upgrade their fixed networks that use wires.

Others would argue that doesn't make sense in a world that offers other options, some that are vastly cheaper, but not as fast as an urban fiber to home network. Other alternatives are moderately faster, and moderately costly, but less costly by far than a rural FTTH network that features mostly long loops.

Shorn of politics, the rational technology solution would be to use a mix of technologies, none of them perfect substitutes for FTTH, but each making eminent financial sense if the objective is getting the fastest feasible broadband to all users, in a variety of situations, right away.

With the launch of new high-power satellites by the likes of HughesNet (Echostar) and ViaSat, rural users will be able to get service at significantly-higher speeds, perhaps up to about 15 Mbps downstream. It won't be as affordable as urban cable modem services or DSL, but rural areas have different economics. What is financially possible in an urban or suburban area is not possible in a very-rural area.

Verizon is banking on faster Long Term Evolution networks in areas with enough users to support mobile service. Whether downstream speeds will be as fast as 15 Mbps remains to be seen, in each area.

But the point is that LTE will be feasible in many areas where it might simply be impractical to build FTTH networks without government subsidies. The first generation of LTE will not run as fast as later generations, but even first-generation LTE will provide much higher speeds than 3G networks are capable of providing.

In other cases, where cable operators are upgrading to DOCSIS, cable might always have the "speed" advantage. If telcos choose not to compete, they will lose customers. But, shorn of politics, that might be the best outcome in some markets.

As European and North American communications regulators already have discovered, in real life, there might be a trade off between maximum feasible competition and maximum feasible capital investment in networks.

And that's only part of the story. It is not entirely clear whether other alternatives, such as white spaces, might emerge as a significant factor in rural areas. White spaces might provide a new wave of competition in rural areas.

The other problem we will have worked through, in a decade, is the division of roles between fixed and mobile networks. Some services that today make eminent sense might not be so logical in a decade. Which network supplies those features, apps or services might also be less obvious today, than will be the case in a decade.

Everywhere in the world, mobile networks are getting faster, and application development has moved to the mobile realm as well. In a decade, we might all be very surprised at how the business, and consumer behavior, have changed.

In the future, more than today, fixed networks will be recognized as "better" at some roles, while mobile is seen as "better" for other roles. Beyond the matter of which access network is used, we are likely to be surprised by the way former "telcos" make their money, as well.

The point is that the way Verizon chooses to supply applications and access should not be viewed through the lens of the past, but the prism of the future.

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