AT&T, CenturyLink, and Google Fiber gain new edge in FTTH construction processes

AT&T (NYSE: T), CenturyLink (NYSE: CTL) and insurgent providers like Google Fiber (NASDAQ: GOOG) are hot on the 1 Gbps FTTH trail, but they have one thing in common: finding new ways to install fiber in new and existing neighborhoods.

Pre-wiring Greenfield housing developments with fiber makes sense as it can immediately offer a suite of broadband and video services, creating a potential attractive amenity for apartment and condominum complexes.

AT&T Connected Communities, a division that targets multi-dwelling unit (MDU) builds, knows this all too well. The service provider told FierceTelecom that wiring MDUs is slightly easier in that it can get access to necessary conduit and other facilities.

Outside of the MDU market, the bigger question will be how will AT&T fulfill its requirement to get its DirecTV deal done to bring FTTH service to an additional 12.5 million homes? AT&T's answer is to leverage and extend its existing fiber-to-the-node (FTTN) network.

John Stephens, CFO of AT&T, recently told investors that the service provider has "more knowledge about the cost efficiencies and the structure so we can extend locations where we have fiber-to-the-node to make them fiber-to-the-premises and accomplish these goals." He added that local town and city government agencies have also created a streamlined permitting process so AT&T can get access to rights of way and utility poles.  

Extending the FTTN network makes sense for AT&T. Through its multi-billion dollar Project VIP initiative, AT&T has brought its IP-based FTTN broadband service to 57 million U.S. locations. It can extend the fiber it already installed to reach remote terminal cabinets and to its core network, while equipping the CO with an optical line terminal (OLT) and an optical network terminal (ONT) at the home to deliver the FTTH service. 

Taking a somewhat similar approach to AT&T is Windstream. Although it is enhancing its existing copper network in Tier 2 and Tier 3 markets with VDSL2 and bonding -- two technologies that will enable it to deliver 50 and 100 Mbps over existing copper -- Windstream is not afraid of FTTH.

Having already laid fiber to newer housing developments over the past 20 years, Tony Thomas, CEO of Windstream, told investors that the company would launch one market with 1 Gbps this year with the potential to reach five over its existing last mile fiber networks.

But extending existing fiber facilities is just one weapon service providers are using to make their FTTH deployments more cost effective.

No less important are new innovations like microtrenching that streamline the underground fiber laying process. Microtrenching is the process of installing small conduits within the edges of the sidewalk to house fiber optic cabling. One of the advantages for service providers and residents in a city or town is that fiber optic cabling is inserted into a small slot-cut trench without damaging or disrupting existing infrastructure.

At least three service providers -- CenturyLink, Google Fiber and Verizon -- are in some stage of using microtrenching technology.

CenturyLink, through an agreement with University of Louisiana, is trialing microtrenching technology in the Minnesota and Seattle markets where it offers 1 Gbps service. The service provider will cut shallower-than-usual trench in the edge of a roadbed, deploying conduit and using a polymer seal over the top of it. It said that this method would reduce fiber installation costs when taking FTTH into existing Brownfield areas.   

Having this technology in hand plus using existing utility poles in existing markets will enable CenturyLink to achieve its own goals to reach 700,000 homes with FTTH by the end of the year. Part of this initiative includes expanding the service into six new states.

Google Fiber previously filed a patent for a narrow edging strip that would conceal fiber run into homes from demarcation points in the streets. Likewise, Verizon began a pilot project in 2013 that will use "micro-trenching" with New York City, one of its largest FTTH markets.

FTTH service is far from ubiquitous, but it's clear that these service provider's moves will have a direct effect on network installers like Dycom, which reported that a large part of its $579 million fourth quarter revenue was from its top telco customers 1 Gbps installations. This momentum should continue for Dycom and other installers into 2016 as these service providers leverage new methods to meet their 2016 FTTH ambitions. --Sean