A report on fiber's benefits conducted by a British sustainability consulting firm for CityFibre is ruffling some feathers across the pond.
In "Our Digital Infrastructure Needn't Cost the Earth," Carbon Smart determined the United Kingdom's reliance on copper-based infrastructure is holding back the nation from adoption of telehealth, autonomous vehicles and other initiatives that help the environment. (As a reminder, yesterday CityFibre ruffled financial feathers when it agreed to an acquisition led by an investor group See UK's CityFibre Soars on £538M Bid From Goldman-Backed Group.)
"The Victorian-aged copper we've relied upon for decades is already at its physical and technological limits. Not only is copper the weakest link in our networks technologically speaking, it also has a far greater ecological impact due to the energy, effort and resources associated with its extraction, manufacture, transportation, installation, operation and ongoing maintenance," the report said.
Not so fast, said executives at vendors with Gfast and other copper-related products.
"At this point in time nobody is actively putting new copper in the ground. They're rehabbing it or leveraging it as much as they can," said Geoff Burke, senior director of corporate marketing, in an interview.
Service providers typically use existing copper -- often in multi-dwelling units or historical buildings -- coupled with Gfast to provide up to 2Gbit/s speeds (and growing), David Raun, president and chief operating officer of ASSIA told Broadband World News. Copper mining is, therefore, moot.
"The act of digging up streets [and] yards to install fiber is much more disruptive on the environment and uses scarce resources in the process," said Raun, whose company is backed by investors such as AT&T, Swisscom Ventures, Telefónica and T-Ventures. "Current copper in the ground does none of this."
Comparing apples to labradors?
In its paper, Carbon Smart discusses Demand Side Response to reduce power-sector emissions by incenting utilities to adopt renewable technologies and curtail grid capacity. These smart grids generate more data: The UK is deploying about 53 million smart meters across 30 million homes and businesses, the consulting firm said. To avoid blackouts, brownouts and system failures, smart grids require reliable and secure bi-directional transmission of the huge amount of data generated, it added.
This is, of course, all true. It's tough to conceive of a role for Gfast or VDSL here or in many green field opportunities. Even Gfast vendors agree the technology -- while valuable for specific use cases -- cannot (and was never meant to) meet every customer's need.
"I am not disparaging copper as a practical solution but fiber is the future. And that future is aligned with environmental initiatives," Calix' Burke said.
The report argues full fiber is a better alternative, in all cases, to copper-based options such as VDSL or Gfast, most likely a jab at CityFibre competitor and UK incumbent BT, which relies on Gfast in many regions to deliver services. Britain is home to 75 million miles of copper wire, according to Carbon Smart, citing a four-year-old statistic. Since 2014, however, copper-based technologies have advanced to the point where they easily support 1Gbit/s speeds and, since Gfast uses existing copper wire, the impact of mining is null.
Carbon Smart also discusses the growing use of videoconferencing and telecommuting and the alleged inability of copper-based technologies to deliver for users.
"Without the requisite investment in universal Fibre-to-theHome connectivity, home connections will be insufficient constrained or unreliable and therefore increasingly less likely to be suitable," the paper said.
What then of those rural residents who must rely on satellite or DSL? Or those millions of city apartment dwellers, whose landlords who won't let service providers deploy fiber because of the mess? Or those who love their historic homes and are unwilling or unable to bore holes in walls? With millions of users in countless countries satisfied with the speed and reliability of their VDSL or Gfast-powered copper connection, blasting an entire swathe of technology seems naïve or ill-informed, at best.
"Another matter to consider is that fiber does not carry power (yet). Copper does carry power. This is the battery back-up system that must be placed at each home in a fiber system; they are notorious for being ecological hard (they leak, some explode)," said ASSIA's Raun. "That does not happen with copper."
ASSIA, for example, developed DSL Expresse, which manages the transmission power and keeps power-consumption low -- benefiting both service provider customers and the environment -- and enabling operators to minimize the DSLAM's electricity usage while still delivering subscribers the Internet service level they bought.
"The idea is to use just enough transmit power, but not any more. We constantly monitor the service and adjust each line individually to ensure consumers get a happy Internet experience," Raun added.
Ways and means
In part, CityFibre could have sponsored the study to counter incumbents' slowly dragging feet in their fiber deployment efforts, said Calix' Burke.
"When you're CityFibre and you're facing a lot of hurdles... you need to get over to get public opinion behind you," he said. "The major incumbents hold all the cards. The environment is a great rallying card."
The numbers may be difficult to deduce for a nation, but fiber's benefits do add up -- economically and environmentally, said Burke.
"Subscribers and the businesses themselves have all greatly benefited from fiber; the fact that the environment benefits as well is in great alignment," he said. "First into fiber wins. In the long run, they're the beneficiary of their own investment. The business benefit of being the second or third provider to deploy fiber is much less significant. Then you're trying to draw folks away from an already amazing experience." (See UK's CityFibre Soars on £538M Bid From Goldman-Backed Group.)
— Alison Diana, Editor, Broadband World News. Follow us on Twitter or @alisoncdiana.