A new process enables fibre-optic equivalent very high-speed broadband over traditional copper telephone lines.

Copper a Cheaper Alternative to Fibre Optics for Very High-Speed Broadband?

Stefaan Vanhastel, Marketing Director for Wireline Fixed Access at Alcatel-Lucent, does not doubt the fact that fibre-optic cable is the most suitable technology for high-speed broadband transmission.  He points out however, that installing fibre cable in each individual house across an entire country could take 10 to 20 years. Now Alcatel-Lucent has announced that it has found a means of speeding up access to high-speed Internet services for subscribers worldwide, using a ‘turbo-charging’ technology for the copper used in traditional telephone lines. This new technology could make a huge difference, given that – according to a study by telecommunications market research firm Dell’oro – 55% of the world’s broadband subscribers today have copper connections, although this figure drops to 33% in the United States, where most people receive their broadband Internet from the same coaxial cable that delivers their TV.

An alternative to fibre-optic cable

Over a short distance, such as that from a telephone pole to a house, twisted-pair copper telephone wires can provide data speeds of one gigabit (i.e. 1,024 megabits) per second for the final stretch from the street to the home. In order to achieve this, a much greater range of frequencies is used on the copper cable.  A noise-cancelling signal is generated to counteract the interference from nearby lines to which copper is highly prone. Some current systems in fact use a similar approach to achieve speeds of 300 megabits per second in lab tests, and 40 to 60 megabits in the field. However, using the technology developed by Alcatel-Lucent, Telekom Austria recently succeeded in achieving 500 megabits per second at a distance of 90 metres. The new system uses a standard known as G.fast, which has just obtained a preliminary step towards approval from the International Telecommunications Union. The ITU is expected to approve the final standard in 2014, and products are expected to come on to the market after 2015.

Little interest from ISPs?

The technology is certainly highy promising, as it is much less expensive than fibre-optic cable. However, the major challenge will be to persuade Internet Service Providers to upgrade their networks, warns Blair Levin, a former chief of staff at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and now executive director of Gig.U, a consortium of universities working on installing fast networks. He explains that there is currently little incentive for carriers to provide a better service because they are already so profitable. He agrees that such efforts to turbo-charge copper cables cheaply for the mass market are very impressive but until such time as a major telecommunications company is seen to deploy the new technology efficiently, he doubts that consumers are likely to enjoy the fruits. However, one stimulus for telcos to take up the G.fast approach might be to compete with initiatives such as Google Fiber, Google’s drive to install a cheap one-gigabit-per-second service in Kansas City.

By Timothée Sicot
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