Betting the FTTP farm on your contractors

There's no denying that the fiber-to-the-premises buzz in growing. Telcos are responding to multicable system operaters offering bundled services and municipalities are installing fiber to make their cities more competitive. It’s tempting to focus on what equipment they are using, and who’s going to get the revenue, but we think this misses the larger issue lurking below the surface: who’s going to make all this stuff work.

There's no denying that the fiber-to-the-premises buzz in growing. Telcos are responding to multicable system operaters offering bundled services and municipalities are installing fiber to make their cities more competitive. It’s tempting to focus on what equipment they are using, and who’s going to get the revenue, but we think this misses the larger issue lurking below the surface: who’s going to make all this stuff work.

While most of the telecom industry’s attention is focused on big FTTP equipment contracts, behind the scenes the real action is taking place.  The ultimate success of this initiative rests squarely on less glamorous details regarding how these systems will be designed, integrated and deployed. Indeed, fiber access deployments are not the same as copper and require a decidedly different procurement and installation approach from the central office all the way to the subscriber’s premises. Even the most vociferous of the RBOC bunch, Verizon, says it’s going to take at least two years to start ramping up for mass FTTP deployments.

By far, the biggest obstacles to FTTP success are the many challenges of integrating a fully converged network and the complex issues and economics of physical fiber plant construction.  Speaking at the Fiber to the Home Conference in New Orleans, Verizon’s Joe Finn said that initial deployments would focus on voice and data, because video is complicated. He’s right. These FTTP efforts are not as simple as replicating the construction of the legacy local loop. They’re more complex.

New network builds can also be very intrusive to local communities. If deployment is not managed skillfully, it can be very costly and a source of negative publicity.  There is a specific set of skills required to professionally manage the FTTP network deployment lifecycle, from business and technical planning, to design and engineering, as well as construction and integration and maintenance and operation.

The first time around, the telcos constructed local networks using internal resources. However, because of cutbacks and rising labor costs, look for these activities to be outsourced. For most telcos, the decision on how to outsource and to whom could well be the most important factor in the success of their FTTP efforts.

For municipalities looking to build their own fiber networks, outsourcing is even more important, because telecommunications network construction is not a core activity and reliance on skilled vendor partners is even more critical.

Sensing opportunity, multiple vendors are offering to serve as true turnkey FTTP systems integrators, while some others are pulling together the piece parts to an overall package. Today, there are less than a handful of turnkey FTTP systems integrators that can really pull together all of the FTTP lifecycle elements into one experience-based package. For example, Alcatel is making a compelling, single source turnkey offering in the FTTP deployment space, including all lifecycle skills.  Large traditional systems integrators like Unisys and IBM are also looking at these opportunities - their experience in enterprise-grade networks is proven, but their experience in carrier-grade fiber access technologies is unclear and untested. While the ability of many traditional systems integrators to deliver enterprise-grade networks is proven, they are not proven carrier-grade infrastructure integrators with FTTH. 

Some vendors are teaming up to offer the whole solution. The MuniConsortium, an affiliation of FTTP lifecycle companies, is a potential source for the end-to-end solution. The group acts as a “clearinghouse” for specialized individual FTTP-related vendors.  It is closer to a turnkey offering in terms of lifecycle skills, but in a more cooperative than integrated fashion - it’s not a single source, single contract, single point of contact model. 

Interestingly, when you get down to who’s digging ditches in Saco, Maine, it’s likely to be the same person no matter which vendor you go with - there are only so many experienced contractors on the street. So it is the super-structure of the deployment within the systems integrators that matter - that is, who can manage it all.

Naturally, the benefits of using one full service vendor have to be weighed against the potential risks of going sole source on a large-scale project and potential premium pricing for that end-to-end capability. A single source vendor must demonstrate financial stability and an in-depth knowledge of the access network environment and fiber-optic technologies, and establish the availability of sufficient and qualified project resources.

The more moving parts there are within an operation, the more difficult, expensive and risky it can be. FTTP is about as complex as it gets. Look for industry players with specific experience in building carrier-class fiber networks, and beware of big construction companies and traditional systems integrators that lack FTTP expertise. Only those vendors with a proven record working in a live central office environment and delivering carrier-class access infrastructure solutions should be acceptable for deploying these initial converged access solutions.

Learn more about this topic

Verizon getting its fiber

In the fiber-to-the-premise, or FTTP, watch, all eyes are on Verizon. Network World, 10/24/03.

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