Verizon to Retire Copper

Verizon is asking the FCC for permission to retire copper networks throughout its service territory in New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, Virginia, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. In recent months the company has asked to kill copper in hundreds of exchanges in those states. These range from urban exchanges in New York City to exchanges scattered all over the outer suburbs of Washington DC and Baltimore. Some of these filings can be found at this site.

The filings ask to retire the copper wires. Verizon will no longer support copper in these exchanges and will stop doing any maintenance on copper. The company intends to move people who still are served by copper over to fiber and is not waiting for the FCC notice period to make such conversions. Verizon is also retiring the older DMS telephone switches, purchased years ago from the long-defunct Northern Telecom. Telephone service will be moved to more modern softs switches that Verizon uses for fiber customers.

The FCC process requires Verizon to notify the public about plans to retire copper and if no objections are filed in a given exchange the retirement takes place 90 days after the FCC’s release of the public notice to retire. Verizon has been announcing copper retirements since February 2017 and was forced to respond to intervention in some locations, but eventually refiled most retirement notices a second time.

Interestingly, much of the FiOS fiber network was built by overlashing fiber onto the copper wires, so the copper wires on poles are likely to remain in place for a long time to come.

From a technical perspective, these changes were inevitable. Verizon is the only big telco to widely build fiber plan in residential neighborhoods and it makes no sense to ask them to maintain two technologies in neighborhoods with fiber.

I have to wonder what took them so long to get around to retiring the copper. Perhaps we have that answer in language that is in each FCC request where Verizon says it “has deployed or plans to deploy fiber-to-the-premises in these areas”. When Verizon first deployed FiOS they deployed it in a helter-skelter manner, mostly sticking to neighborhoods which had the lowest deployment cost, usually where they could overlash on aerial copper. At the time they bypassed places where other utilities were buried unless the neighborhood already had empty conduit in place. Perhaps Verizon has quietly added fiber to fill in these gaps or is now prepared to finally do so.

That is the one area of concern raised by these notices. What happens to customers who still only have a copper alternative? If they have a maintenance issue will Verizon refuse to fix it? While Verizon says they are prepared to deploy fiber everywhere, what happens to customers until the fiber is in front of their home or business? What happens to their telephone service if their voice switch is suddenly turned off?

I have to hope that Verizon has considered these situations and that they won’t let customers go dead. While many of the affected exchanges are mostly urban, many of them include rural areas that are not covered by a cable company competitor, so if customers lose Verizon service, they could find themselves with no communications alternative. Is Verizon really going to build FiOS fiber in all of the rural areas around the cities they serve?

AT&T is also working towards eliminating copper and offers fixed cellular as the alternative to copper in rural places. Is that being considered by Verizon but not mentioned in these filings?

I also wonder what happens to new customers. Will Verizon build a fiber drop to a customer who only wants to buy a single telephone line? Will Verizon build fiber to new houses, particularly those in rural areas? In many states the level of telephone regulation has been reduced or eliminated and I have to wonder if Verizon still sees themselves as the carrier of last resort that is required to provide telephone service upon request.

Verizon probably has an answer to all of these questions, but the FCC request to retire copper doesn’t force the company to get specific. All of the questions I’ve asked wouldn’t exist if Verizon built fiber everywhere in an exchange before exiting the copper business. As somebody who has seen the big telcos fail to meet promises many times, I’d be nervous if I was a Verizon customer still served by copper and had to rely on Verizon’s assurance that they have ‘plans’ to bring fiber.

Is There any Life Left in Copper?

RG-59 coaxial cable A: Plastic outer insulatio...

RG-59 coaxial cable A: Plastic outer insulation B: Copper-clad aluminium braid shield conductor C: Dielectric D: Central conductor (copper-clad steel) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Copper is still a very relevant technology today, and when looked at on a global scale nearly 2/3 of all broadband subscribers are still served by copper. That percentage is smaller in the US, but this country has a far more widely deployed cable TV system than most of the rest of the world.

The most widely deployed DSL technologies today are ADSL2 and VDSL. In theory these technologies can get speeds up to about 40 Mbps. But depending upon the gauge, the age and the condition of the copper many actual deployments are closer to 20 Mbps than the theoretical 40 Mbps.

ADSL2 and VDSL technology has been widely deployed by AT&T in its U-verse product which serves over 7 million data customers and over 4.5 million cable customers. AT&T has made the product available to over 24 million homes. AT&T can support the product up to about 3,500 feet on good single copper pair and up to 5,500 feet using a two bonded copper pairs.

And ADSL2 is a pretty decent product. It can deliver IPTV and still support an okay data pipe. However, as the cable companies are finding ways to get more bandwidth out of their coaxial cable and as new companies are deploying fiber, these DSL technologies are going to again fall behind the competition.

So what is out there that might resurrect copper and make speeds faster than ADSL2? Not too long ago I wrote a blog about G.Fast, which is Alcatel-Lucent’s attempt to find a way to get more speeds out of legacy copper networks. In recent field tests ALU achieved a maximum speed of 1.1 Gbps over 70 meters and 800 Mbps over 100 meters for brand new copper. On older copper the speed dropped to 500 Mbps for 100 meters.

However, the G.Fast distance limitations are far shorter than ADSL2 and G.Fast is really more of a drop technology than a last mile technology and it would require a telco like AT&T to build a lot more fiber to get even closer to houses. You have to wonder of it makes any sense to rebuild the copper network to be able to get up to 500 Mbps out of copper when fiber could deliver many gigabits.

There are other technologies that have been announced for copper. Late last year Genesis Technical Systems announced a scheme to get 400 Mbps out of copper using a technology they are calling DSL Rings. This technology would somehow tie 2 to 15 homes into a ring and bridge them with copper. Details of how the technology works are still a little sketchy.

In 2011 the Chinese vendor Huawei announced a new technology that will push up to 1 gigabit for 100 meters. This sounds very similar to G.Fast and sounds like a way to use existing copper within a home rather than rewiring.

There is one new technology that is finally getting wider use which is bonded VDSL pairs that use vectoring. Vectoring is a noise cancellation technology that works in a way similar to how noise-cancelling headphones work to eliminate sound interference. Vectoring eliminates most of the noise between bonded pairs of copper. Alcatel-Lucent hit the market with bonded pair VDSL2 in late 2011 that can deliver up to 100 Mbps. However, in real deployment speeds are reported to be 50 Mbps to 60 Mbps on older copper. That is enough speed to probably give another decade to DSL, although to do so requires a full replacement of old technology DSL technology with VDSL2. One has to wonder how many times the telcos will keep upgrading their copper electronics to get a little more speed rather than taking the leap to fiber like Verizon did.

One only has to take a look at the growth rate of the data used at homes and ask how long copper can remain relevant. Within a few short decades we have moved from where homes could get by on dial-up and now find a 20 Mbps connection too slow. Looking just a few years forward we see the continued growth of video sharing and a lot of new traffic from cellular femtocells and the Internet of Things. It’s hard to think that it won’t be long until people are bemoaning the inadequacy of their 50 Mbps connections. But that day is coming and probably is not more than a decade away.

G.Fast

You are going to start hearing about a new technology that may infuse some life back into existing copper networks. The technology is being referred to as G.Fast. This technology promises to be able to deliver very fast speeds up to a gigabit over copper for very short distances.

Some are referring to G.Fast as a last mile technology, but it is really a drop technology. The distances supported by the technology are so short that this is going to require fiber to the curb, or as some are now calling it, fiber to the distribution point.

Alcatel-Lucent and Telekom Austria just announced a field trial of G.Fast. That trial achieved a maximum speed of 1.1 Gbps over 70 meters and 800 Mbps over 100 meters for brand new copper. On older copper the speed dropped to 500 Mbps for 100 meters.

Current copper technologies use only a small portion of the theoretical bandwidth available on a copper wire. For example, most VDSL2 systems deployed today use up to 17 MHz of spectrum on the copper. G.Fast can provide more speeds by using more of the available spectrum and will be able to use somewhere between 70-140 MHz on copper. Plus G.Fast will be more efficient. Today DSL functions by dividing the data path into sub channels which each contain about 15 bits of data. Engineers are looking at coding and modulation techniques that will increase the bits per sub channel for G.Fast and thus increase speeds more.

G.Fast also will benefit by an existing technique called vectoring. This technology is used today with VDSL2 and eliminates crosstalk interference between copper pairs. It does this by monitoring the noise on copper and then creating an anti-noise signal which cancels the noise in the same was as is done by noise-canceling headphones.

Right now Alcatel-Lucent is spending a lot of time on G.Fast because they see a big opportunity to make more money out of the old copper networks. So let’s look at the issues that a large telco like AT&T will face when considering the technology:

  • Because the distances to deploy G.Fast are so short, the carrier is going to have to build fiber past every customer, just like in a FTTH network. A large carrier like AT&T has some advantages over a fiber overbuilder in that they can overlash fiber onto existing copper on pole lines. This is cheaper and faster than putting up fiber for a new provider who has to deal with pole make-ready costs.
  • Copper drops are generally the worst copper in the network. These wires get banged around by wind and suffer from repetitive water damage and are the weak point in the copper network. The promised savings from G.Fast is to lower the cost of installation at a customer. Some of this savings disappears if too many homes need a new drop to make it work.
  • G.Fast will save the cost of getting into the house. Once connected to an existing telephone NID on the outside of the house the signal can go anywhere in the home that is already wired for telephone. But the distance issue quickly kicks in and I would expect carriers to take this to a wireless right inside the house.
  • Savings are going to depend on how inexpensive the G.Fast electronics are compared to FTTH electronics.
  • Large telcos have relied for years upon customer self-installation of DSL and they will need G.Fast to work the same way.

So the savings to somebody like AT&T come from a) cheaper fiber installation costs because of the ability to overlash, 2) the ability in many cases to use existing drop and inside telephone wires, and 3) the ability to have customers self-install the product to avoid having to go into the home.

There are still a lot of technical issues to consider and overcome. Some issues that come to my mind include things like overcoming existing splices in the copper, and making sure there is no interference with existing DSL.

The expected time line for the deployment of G.Fast is as follows:

  • Standards finalized by spring of 2014.
  • Chip sets developed in 2015.
  • First generation hardware available in 2016 that probably won’t support vectoring.
  • Mature second generation equipment available in 2017.

Since a carrier has to build fiber everywhere for this to work, the technology is really competing against FTTH. By the time this is readily available there may be lower-cost units for FTTH deployment and I think any carrier would prefer an all-fiber network if possible.