AT&T says Gfast is a minimally invasive broadband technology for MDUs

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Deploying fiber gets even more complex in condominiums where each unit is individually owned.

AT&T says Gfast will enable it to more immediately scale higher speed broadband in multi-dwelling units (MDUs) because the technology allows it to forgo the complex installation process associated with fiber to the premises (FTTP) technologies.

Since AT&T can use existing copper and coax, it can approach MDU owners and residents with a high-speed solution that’s less disruptive than FTTP.

AT&T estimates that 80% of the buildings in the U.S. don’t currently have a fiber connection, but have plenty of coax and copper.

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Eric Small, VP of Commercial and MDU Solutions AT&T, told FierceTelecom that G.fast helps solve installation problems for existing MDUs.

“Because we’re using the home-run twisted pair or coax wiring in the building, we don’t need new wires and we don’t need access to the individual units,” Small said. “We’re deploying the G.fast electronics in the telecom closet and connecting to the existing home run wiring.”

Small added that deploying fiber gets even more complex in condominiums where each unit is individually owned.

“Getting access to individual units in a condominium environment can be problematic,” Small said. “Unlike an apartment where a landlord has a master key to all the units, in a condo the individuals own the units and it takes more coordination.”

Regardless of the challenges, AT&T has big plans for G.fast. In August, the telco announced intentions to deploy Gfast in MDUs outside of its traditional 22-state territory. AT&T can potentially grab broadband dollars away from Comcast and Verizon in markets like Boston.

Following initial Gfast trials in Minneapolis, AT&T will target eight cities that have properties equipped with the hybrid fiber/copper and coax technology.

Small said the reason why AT&T chose these markets is that they already have installed existing metro area fiber.

“In each of these markets, we have extensive fiber assets that we deployed for enterprise customers and cell site backhaul,” Small said. “We have an extensive fiber footprint and have our AT&T IP backbone presence in those markets, meaning we can connect directly to our backbone.”

Copper, coax show tradeoffs

While Gfast can run over copper or coax cable, AT&T is finding that existing coax is the more resilient wiring method to get higher speeds.  

In fact, the service provider advocated that in its initial G.fast white paper to the ITU that the standard should include a coax option.

“We can use twisted pair up through Category 6 or coax, which was something we pushed for in the standards with the ITU,” Small said.

Still, using copper and coax and have tradeoffs. Small said that by using coax in MDUs, AT&T can get higher speeds versus traditional copper.

The first generation of the Gfast standard includes vectoring to mitigate cross talk on existing copper to get the higher speeds. However, the copper potion requires a service provider to assign specific downstream and upstream profiles.

“With the first generation of Gfast, AT&T is getting 750 Mbps of total capacity throughput to subscribers,” Small said. “On twisted pair, we have to assign that bandwidth statically up front.”

For its first G.fast markets, AT&T is offering a 500/100 Mbps speed service.

By using coax wiring, the Gfast standard features dynamic bandwidth allocation.

“We’re using coax and coax allows for dynamic bandwidth allocation,” Small said. “It self-assigns that 750 Mbps and it’s incredibly flexible and unique in terms of the technologies we deploy today.”

At the same time, AT&T is also leveraging the existing metro fiber facilities it has in the markets it installed for business and wireless backhaul to connect into the buildings.

AT&T will then use GPON or Ethernet to carry the signal to the Gfast equipment in the MDU’s telecom closet.  

“To get access to the building, we can use GPON or Metro Ethernet,” Small said. “Out of region, we started with metro Ethernet over fiber and then connect into the Gfast modules with Ethernet or just connect GPON into the Gfast unit.”

Overcoming property challenges

Regardless of how big the Gfast opportunity for MDUs is, AT&T still faces challenges in garnering agreements with property owners and getting access to existing wiring.

Initially, the service provider is targeting MDUs with G.fast where installing fiber for broadband posed challenges.

“We started in region with fiber to the unit, but we have in those discussions with property owners found a number of properties that can’t support fiber to the unit,” Small said. “We intend to go back to those property owners where fiber wasn’t an option and propose G.fast.”

The telco recently began discussions with property owners in California and plans to pursue other states by the end of the year with Gfast.

While the DirecTV acquisition gave AT&T access to a large amount of MDUs with coax cable, the property owners own the wired facilities.

Although there are FCC rules to make coax available to any service provider that wants to offer video and broadband in their MDUs, in some cases these companies may have existing agreements with other providers.

“There are a number of locations where property owners have entered into agreements with cable operators for exclusive use of wire,” Small said. “Even though per the FCC those are unenforceable it adds a bit of friction in getting access to the coax.”  

And while some MDU owners could put in a common termination point that supports cable and other providers, Small said the process can be cumbersome.

“In some cases, MDU owners could put in a neutral box that has the home run coax terminate to a single terminal, which either AT&T or cable could use,” Small said. “Getting cable on board with that and spending time with the property owner to sort out those arrangements adds a little time to the process.”

But for AT&T, the one saving grace is that a large majority of MDUs have plenty of existing usable coax.

“The good news is probably 98% of buildings have coax and 10% have Ethernet cabling, which is why we pushed for coax to be in the Gfast standard,” Small said. “Coax is very prevalent and it allows for this dynamic bandwidth assignment.”