AT&T ramps MDU fiber builds, sees growing potential in G.fast

As AT&T (NYSE: T) continues to ramp up its FTTH deployments into new cities like San Jose, California, the service provider is finding that the best targets for 1 Gbps service exist in multi-dwelling units (MDUs).

This is because consumers who reside in MDUs typically value broadband as a foundation for various applications like over the top video and voice.

Rehan Asad, AVP, Broadband Operations for AT&T, told FierceTelecom that these trends have led the telco to concentrate its attention on building fiber to these sites.

"We have been really focused on MDU and this is one area where we are putting a lot of focus, capital and energy for our corporation," Asad said. "If you look at the demographic of the MDU market, an MDU in a downtown environment has the tech savvy people who move in and can't live without broadband."

AT&T agreed to build FTTH services to 12.5 million homes as part of its DirecTV acquisition agreement with the FCC. A large part of those homes will be MDUs.

However compelling the market opportunity is, Asad said it comes with a number of technical and access issues. In order to wire up an MDU with fiber, AT&T has to get permission from each building owner.

"The challenge with MDU is that we need permission from the property owner or the home owners association (HOA) to wire the rest of the building," Asad said. "If that building is already wired with fiber, it's pretty simple in that we go to the bottom of the building and we light up the whole building in seven to 30 days."

Asad added that a large majority of existing buildings only have traditional copper and hybrid fiber-coax.

"The problem is 80 percent of the buildings in the U.S. are not fibered up," Asad said. "They have a mix of coax and copper so we're trying to evaluate other technologies like G.fast."

While most building residents don't mind having a service provider wire up each unit with fiber, some MDU residents don't want someone drilling holes in their home. So AT&T is eyeing other technologies like G.fast to deliver the connection to users.

By using G.fast, AT&T and other telcos can leverage the existing Cat 5, Cat 6 or copper cable to deliver up to 500 Mbps to each resident. The goal is to get a feel for what the customers in these MDUs want out of their broadband service and tailor the right solution.

"Some people tell us they're willing to go into their apartment building and bring the fiber to the bottom floor but my residents don't want their lives to be disrupted," Asad said. "In that case, they tell us to use the Cat 5 or Cat 6 cabling for the last mile."

AT&T is currently evaluating G.fast  in various markets. But being a copper-based technology, G.fast limited in its reach.

"We're looking into G.fast right now," Asad said. "The main challenge for G.fast is that between 500-800 feet it works great to deliver 500 Mbps, but the moment it hits 800 feet the signal drops."

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