The digital divide thrives in cities, where millions of apartment dwellers remain disconnected from the high-speed broadband some of their uptown neighbors have enjoyed for years. But network access technologies are changing that landscape, allowing providers to cost-effectively bring ultra-broadband services to underservedand unserved regions of the world's cities.
Of the 1.75 billion residents of the globe's eight richest countries (by GDP) who remain unconnected, 34% live in major urban centers, a June 2017 study by the Wireless Broadband Alliance found. (See Disconnected in the City.) These cities include New York, London, Sao Paolo, Moscow and Delhi.
Across the United States, about 68.6% of families live in one-unit structures, while 25.7% dwell in structures with two or more units such as town houses, apartments, condos or co-ops, according to the 2016 American Community survey. (Another 5.6% reside in mobile homes or other units.)
Zoom in on cities, however, and you'll see that residents overwhelming live in multi-dwelling units (MDUs) whose mix of ownership -- from investment firms to solo investors to individual homeowners themselves and absentee landlords -- generate another level of complexity for operators looking to bring ultra-broadband city-wide.
Equal access for all
Service providers, advertising to those fiber-connected potential subscribers, must turn down requests for services from those in urban areas where they currently do not operate -- a move that's bad for their overall business and brand, one industry executive told UBB2020.
While most US cities do not demand a quid pro quo, encouraging providers to mete out the same services to both poorer and richer neighborhoods to ensure equal access to ultra-broadband across the region, that approach is in place in some parts of the world, said Stefaan Vanhastel, head of fixed networks marketing for Nokia.
And while most US cities do not force service providers to mete out offerings to both rich and poor neighborhoods, that's an approach several nations have adopted, said New York Chief Technology Officer Miguel Gamino, who's on a mission to bring enhanced fixed and wireless broadband to the approximately 19% of New York residents who are without Internet connectivity. With the pending approach of 5G, the rise of smart cities and smart homes, and the ongoing need for equal access to telehealth, online education, home-based work and other Internet-enabled services, ultra-broadband access is critical across an entire metropolis, he said.
Fiber is costly and time-consuming to implement but most MDUs have coax or copper wiring in place, making them a natural fit for Gfast, said Kurt Raaflaub, head of global marketing at ADTRAN, in an interview.
"Putting Gfast in the toolbox really helps service providers. Gfast is being looked at for MDUs and a lot of people recognize that," he said. "It's almost becoming a fact of business with a lot of major operators that Gfast will be in their fiber rollout plans and higher density areas, such as MDUs and target MDUs, and Gfast is a key technology for helping them do that. Gfast is a technology that they're very, very interested in specifically for high-density, metro areas."
Operators are looking at options to complement fiber in a future-proof manner, Stefaan Vanhastel, head of fixed networks marketing at Nokia, told UBB2020. Whereas the business case for suburban fiber, while costly, works well because operators dig up several streets and connect many houses, in urban areas providers must go into each building to deploy fiber and then enter each individual unit, trying to locate the actual owner of every single apartment in many cases to get permission and approval, he said.
"Fiber to the building but not inside the building; that's a no-brainer application for Gfast. It's not pre-fibered," Vanhastel said. "Sometimes you have to negotiate with the landlord. In a surprising number of cases, the building owner just says no. This gives you an attractive alternative."
This approach also allows operators to more rapidly deliver new ultra-fast broadband to MDU residents, noted Geoff Burke, senior director of corporate marketing at Calix, in an interview. In turn, operators can more speedily begin earning a return on their investment, he added. And these Gfast-based deployments often meet federal or local reimbursement requirements for lower income residents.
"MDUs are harder to go and address. If you use the existing infrastructure that is present, you can rapidly turn up services and very cost-effectively get services into places that otherwise had never been reached," said Burke. "The other fits well into the existing subsidy programs that exist to address these programs head-on because it plays well into the formulas that have been concocted for that."
Making the case
In what Burke describes as Round Two of cities' ultra-broadband deployments, operators are revisiting municipalities to fill in areas that lacked easy access the first time around. MDUs may be an all-or-nothing contract since co-op and condo boards often include pay-TV and Internet services in their monthly dues, he said. Another service provider may be nearing the end of its contract, generating a bidding situation for both infrastructure improvements and subscriber fees, added Greg Bathrick, director of solutions marketing at Calix.
"You're still going to hit the challenge of working with building owners, educating them, but from a technology stance it does become competitive. But Gfast does provide some additional simplification of rolling out," he said.
Gfast helps operators monetize fiber. In an MDU, operators bring in FTTB, or feeder fiber of 10-, 40 or 100 Gbps, to feed all residents, said ADTRAN's Raaflaub. Drop fiber, which goes into each individual customer's home, is typically seen in houses.
"If I were to do fiber to prem, that's great and all -- but if I can additionally add more customers to buy services that run off that feeder fiber, I've additionally monetized services so my business case for that construction is much better. Now a feeder fiber installation is expensive, but you can have hundreds of customers running off that fiber," he said. "Drop fiber might not be expensive, but per customer it is expensive, that's why Gfast as a business case works -- especially at MDUs. The most expensive and disruptive is still tearing up that building and stringing a single piece of fiber for one $50 a month service. Gfast allows me to capture so many more customers and capture them now. That allows me then, as I'm making money and putting that in the bank, that at such time they need to bring fiber, well absolutely they can. They're not throwing the baby out with the bath water."
It's also vital that MDU owners have a path to fiber, said Nokia's Vanhastel. "That investment in Gfast is already an investment in fiber, because you're already bringing fiber to the building. Taking the next step when it's easier to bring fiber to the building, you can very easily bring fiber all the way to the end-user," he added. "The biggest part of that Gfast cost is in bringing the fiber to the building. That cost can be completely leveraged. It's a better business case. Why? You have to invest less. You invest less initially. You can deploy faster. You can start offering services sooner. You start generating revenue."
Using centralized software-defined network access technologies, operators no longer need to send technicians out to bring up Gfast networks, said Bathrick. Management also is vastly simplified, he said.
— Alison Diana, Editor, UBB2020. Follow us on Twitter @UBB2020 or @alisoncdiana.