The Thirty Years War – Everyone Wins As Cable, Telcos Continue to Battle

As the name implies, passive optical networks (PONs) are ways of distributing signals without any active gear. This is attractive to service providers because chucking the lasers cuts costs and makes the resulting network more reliable. Growth in PONs is but one sign that the old battles between the cable and telcos folks are just as active as ever.

Infonetics Research this week released its fourth quarter market share numbers . There is the expected jockeying between the top players. The “perennial leader” is Mitsubishi, and other key players are Fiberhome, Lucent, Motorola and Tellabs. More importantly, optical network units and optical light terminals (ONUs and OLTs) – two important elements of a PON network — were up 38 percent, which suggests a thriving sector. The report adds that Gigabit and Ethernet PON (GPON and EPON) led the way and that overall PON manufacturing was stable. This is good news in a bad economy and following a quarter in which the category expended by 24 percent. The report’s other highlights carry similarly good news for the category.

PONs are a main architecture for phone companies in the United States. The reality is that small telcos are actively deploying fiber systems, though most of the publicity goes to the massive Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-Verse projects. This week, those smaller companies were in the news as Occam Networks announced three deals . The vendor said that two Kentucky cooperatives – Peoples Rural Telephone and Ballard Telephone – are deploying its Broadband Loop Carrier 6322 GPON OLT and ON 2442 GPON Triple Play Gateway optical network terminals. Nex-Tech, a telephone company in Hayes, Kansas, will add to its Occam products, though the release was not as specific on what the company is adding.

The cable operators are heading to PON architectures as well. Getting to that point is a different proposition, however, because of the industry’s preexisting hybrid fiber-coax (HFC) architecture. The industry’s goal is to limit the dislocation that would be caused by a massive switchover from radio frequency (RF) to optical transmissions. To do this, the industry is baking up a set of protocols referred to by the great acronym RFoG (RF over Fiber). The category is beginning to make news. Last month, for instance, GPON vendor Zhone Technology and RFoG vendor Alloptic announced a strategic agreement. The pact will enable Zhone to increase the amount of spectrum to cable operators, the story says.

RFOG, PONs and other exotic sounding architectures and approaches really boil down to one easy to understand equation: Both industries are struggling to migrate their infrastructures to produce more revenue, but to do so with the least possible investment and disruption. Media Experiences 2 Go, a Motorola site, reports that Time Warner Cable has issued a request for information on RFoG and that Motorola and Alloptic have a deal in place that will extend Motorola’s RFoG line.

It’s interesting to get the view of people close to the technologies under consideration. That’s the case in this piece, which focuses on the thoughts of Rouzbeh Yassini, who is informally known as “the father of the cable modem.” Yassini, speaking at the Cable Next-Gen Broadband Strategies conference last month, suggested that the third iteration of the cable industry’s Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS 3.0) will enable the industry’s current hybrid fiber-coax (HFC) architecture for seven or eight years, according to a recent Cable Digital News report . The sticking point, however, is the industry’s chronically constrained field-to-headend “upstream” path. Options mentioned include RFoG and PON.

The cable and phone companies have been going at it tooth and nail for decades. It’s great for their planning and engineering departments – not to mention vendors and a stray blogger or two. The precise nature of the technology, not the contentious dynamic, is the only thing that changes. At times, it seems that the industry with the weaker technology is facing disaster. Now, however, it seems that both industries have put enough research and thinking into their platforms that they will sustain them comfortably, no matter what the other side does.