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How Much Fiber is Enough? Less Than You Think.

By Richard Holtz


An interesting thing happened at the recent Broadband Communities Summit – I found myself having conversations with broadband proponents about how much fiber you really need to get gigabit service to an apartment unit.

Turns out, it’s not as much as apartment owners may have been led to believe.

While the marketing message from both service providers and amenity-crazed apartment consultants seems to say you absolutely need deep fiber all the way to the unit, that’s not really the case.

Here’s the secret that many of that those marketers don’t want you to hear: copper to the unit still actually works just fine. As long as certain key elements are in place, you can still deliver a gigabit experience without fiber all the way to the pillow.

A few of those elements include getting fiber to comm room; making sure the coax cable running between the comm room and the apartment doesn’t span more than 150 feet; having existing Cat 5e cabling in the walls; and putting quality gigabit capable switches and electronics in the comm room.

That’s important for a couple of reasons. One, it means that retrofitting an existing building today can be done more cheaply than you may have thought, since you may not have to start tearing into the walls, depending on what’s already there. That’s critical if you’re currently considering buying a building.

But two, and perhaps more importantly, if you don’t run fiber all the way to the unit, you can save on the costlier electronics that fiber demands.

For many of my colleagues, this message may seem heretical. After all, as a vocal proponent of widespread broadband adoption for most of my career, an argument against the commonly-accepted industry view that you can never have too much fiber could be viewed, at best, as a kind of backpedaling, and at worst, a betrayal to our common goal of broadband for all.

But that’s okay. I’ve never been someone who’s afraid to speak my mind, even if my views sometimes fly in the face of conventional wisdom.

The reason I’m doing so now is because I want apartment owners faced with making these decisions – who have heard nothing but fiber, fiber, fiber over the last decade – – to know the full range of their options, and the costs they’ll incur with each.

Basically, there’s no question about the value of deep fiber going forward. Taking fiber all the way to the unit is going to be your most future-proof option, for at least the next 20 years, if not more.

But to get gigabit speeds to the unit today, placing fiber optic electronics in a communications room, and running Cat 5e copper to the apartments themselves works just fine. In fact, you can get gigabit speeds over copper in this kind of set up without even breathing hard. You just need to make sure you have quality switches and electronics within your design. As I like to say, there are gigabit switches, and then there are gigabit switches. Do you know which is which?

An added bonus is that with copper, your service providers are less apt to squabble amongst each other over the different strands they run their services on, and won’t be able to point fingers at one another when things don’t work.

Going the copper route also helps owners of existing buildings do a retrofit at a lower cost point, because they don’t need as many of the more expensive electronics – the optical devices designed to transmit signals of light – that they would if they ran fiber all the way to the unit.

That’s another important point to consider, especially given how fast technology changes. If owners pay – or partner with service providers to pay – for the latest electronics to be placed inside each of their units today, they can potentially face costly amortization and depreciation issues down the road. Basically, the question becomes how do you amortize and depreciate the electronics fast enough to stay ahead of the curve?

The answer, in some cases, is that you can’t.

Now, as the cost of fiber optic electronics comes down, this issue will eventually solve itself. And when it does, going with deep fiber all the way to the unit will be a no-brainer.

But until that happens, owners should know that they have other, more cost effective options that will work effectively to get residents gigabit speeds, without putting undue pressure on their pocketbooks.

No matter what die-hard fiber proponents and their marketers say.


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