AT&T simplifies PON, Ethernet installation processes, sees communities' FTTB demand growing

AT&T (NYSE: T) may have recently reached its goal to equip 1 million business locations, but it plans to expand the footprint further via GPON and traditional carrier Ethernet technologies.

Already a large Ethernet provider targeting large multi-site businesses, the service provider is seeing the size of related equipment making the installation process easier.

There are a number of differences between PON and Ethernet gear, mainly the size of the equipment and where it can be placed.

Matt Beattie, executive director of product marketing for fiber to the building at AT&T, said when entering any building that the common issue is getting fiber and access to a building's common area like a wiring closet.

"When you go into a multi-tenant building, you have a few different processes: you got the process of getting the fiber into a building through an entrance facility, and that's the same whether you're using PON or switched Ethernet to terminate that fiber," Beattie said.

Overall, PON gear has a few factors that make it less expensive for telcos.

"Once in the building, if you're using PON gear, PON gear tends to have a smaller footprint and less power requirements so it's ultimately less expensive for the carrier and tends to drive less expensive services to the customer," Beattie said.

Although PON has been a key element in its residential FTTH initiative, the service provider continues to make progress with using the technology to simultaneously connect business customers with fiber.

When deploying PON to a business, the service provider will deploy a simple fiber gateway at the premises that includes a few Ethernet ports and one incoming port for a fiber port and Wi-Fi.

In December, AT&T announced that it would build out service to parts of 38 additional metro areas. Having already lit its Gigapower 1 Gbps FTTP service in 18 metros, this new build will enable the service provider double the amount of metro areas it serves to a total of 56.

A similar situation exists when it deploys traditional switched Ethernet. Although Ethernet switches are slightly larger than PON equipment, Beattie noted they are also becoming easier to deploy inside of buildings.

"When you're deploying switched Ethernet connections on the end of fiber, then you need more room inside the telco space and you need access to power, but it's still a relatively small footprint," Beattie said. "These switches are essentially the size of an older desktop computer."

Beattie added that when AT&T deploys fiber at new building sites, the telco finds plenty of space since a lot of older gear that took up multiple racks is getting replaced with equipment that takes up less space.

"When you go in a telecom space, oftentimes what you find is a whole lot of empty space because the old stuff has been taken out to make room for new stuff like fiber," Beattie said. "One of the things you oftentimes see is the telco room is almost empty because all of the new gear is so much smaller than what was there 30 years ago."

While GPON and switched Ethernet deployments into business buildings vary, one of the unifying elements is that each of them will leverage more software-based capabilities via SDN and NFV.  

Leveraging NFV, AT&T plans to virtualize its GPON optical line terminals (OLTs) it deploys in each Central Office to deliver GigaPower 1 Gbps service to residential and business customers. Following a series of trials, AT&T expects to deploy prototypes of this new equipment shortly with trials and deployment sometime this year.

It is taking a similar approach to its switched Ethernet services.

By leveraging SDN, the service provider continues to roll out its Network on Demand service, which lets customers provision their broadband services on the fly using a dedicated portal. Already available in over 175 markets, the company has railed in over 275 Network on Demand customers. 

But even though the service provider has a number of new tools to make the FTTB installation process easier, the reality is that AT&T still has to deal with the challenges of older buildings.

In particular, it has to string fiber through conduit that could be clogged with existing coax or copper. However, the touch issue in grooming out these older facilities is to ensure it won't inadvertentaly shut off an existing service. The service provider has been able to take advantage of new innovations that make it easier for installers to either pull fiber through clogged conduit or in some cases run fiber in interior bases around the corners of walls.

"One of things I often remind people that once you're inside that building that's oftentimes where the real work begins," Beattie. "In older buildings, you have conduit that is clogged with old copper that's been there since the building has been built so sometimes an installer will have to groom copper out of conduit to make room for new services, but that's a tough thing to do because you don't want to put a customer out of service by making sure no one is on the wire you're going to pull."

Regardless of the challenges it faces in rolling out fiber to businesses, AT&T's FTTB drive is getting the attention of more communities that want the service.

Communities like Nashville, Tenn. are becoming technology hubs. By making fiber available in these cities, AT&T is enabling them to attract new businesses to locate their facilities.

"Oftentimes we might get a call from an economic manager for a municipality and the very first conversation we have is good news we're already here," Beattie said. "We're trying to help them retain businesses because the worst thing that you could have happen is you have an up and coming entrepreneurial company that thinks that they have to move to another area because they don't have access to the information technology architecture they think they need."

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