Why fibre is on fire again

Introduction

Fibre to the home is growing at a near-explosive rate

Every company faces the problems of mature markets, disappointing revenues and tough decisions on investment. Everyone agrees that fibre delivers the best network experience, but until recently most companies rejected fibre as too costly.

Now, 15 of the world’s largest phone companies have decided fibre to the home is a solution. Why are so many now investing so heavily?

Here are some highlight statistics:

  • On 26th July 2018, AT&T announced it will pass 5 million locations with fibre to the home in the next 12 months, after reaching 3 million new locations in the last year.[1] Fibre is now a proven money-maker for the US giant, bringing new customers every quarter.
  • Telefónica Spain has passed 20 million premises – over 70% of the addressable population – and continues at 2 million a year.
  • Telefónica Brazil is going from 7 million in 2018 to 10 million in 2020.
  • China’s three giants have 344 million locations connected.[2]
  • Worldwide FTTH connections grew 23% between Q1 2017 and Q1 2018.[3]
  • In June 2018, China Mobile added 4.63 million broadband customers, nearly all FTTH.[4]
  • European FTTH growth in 2017 was 20%.[5]
  • In India, Mukesh Ambani intends to connect 50 million homes at Reliance Jio.[6]

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Even the most reluctant carriers are now building, including Deutsche Telekom and British Telecom. In 2015, BT Openreach CTO Peter Bell said FTTH was “impossible” for Britain because it was too expensive.[7] Now, BT is hiring 3,500 engineers to connect 3 million premises, with 10 million more homes under consideration.[8]

Credit Suisse believes that for an incumbent, “The cost of building fibre is less than the cost of not building fibre.”

Contents:

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Fibre to the home is growing at a near-explosive rate
  • Why the change?
  • Strategies of leading companies
  • Frontrunners
  • Moving toward rapid growth
  • Relative newcomer
  • The newly converted
  • Alternate carriers
  • Naysayers
  • U.S. regionals: CenturyLink, Frontier and Windstream
  • The Asian pioneers
  • Two technologies to consider
  • Ten-gigabit equipment
  • G.fast
  • The hard question: How many will decide to go wireless only?

Figures:

  • Figure 1: Paris area fibre coverage – Orange has covered most of the capital
  • Figure 2: European fibre growth
  • Figure 3: Top five European incumbents, stock price July 2016 – July 2018
  • Figure 4: DT CEO Tim Höttges and Bavarian Prime Minister Dr. Markus Söder announce a deal to fibre nearly all of Bavaria, part financed by the government

[1] https://www.fastnet.news/index.php/11-fib/715-at-t-fiber-run-rate-going-from-3m-to-5m-year

[2] https://www.fastnet.news/index.php/8-fnn/713-china-1-1b-4g-400m-broadband-328m-fibre-home-rapid-growth

[3] http://point-topic.com/free-analysis/world-broadband-statistics-q1-2018/

[4] https://www.chinamobileltd.com/en/ir/operation_m.php

[5] http://www.ftthcouncil.eu/documents/PressReleases/2018/PR%20Market%20Panorama%20-%2015-02-2018-%20FINAL.pdf

[6] https://www.fastnet.news/index.php/11-fib/703-india-unreal-jio-wants-50m-ftth-in-1100-cities

[7] G.fast Summit May 2015

[8] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/feb/01/bt-openreach-hire-3000-engineers-drive-to-fill-broadband-not-spots

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5G: Why Verizon thinks differently – and what to do about it

Introduction

Verizon’s path

Verizon is deploying 5G as quickly as it practically can, already planning to have over 1,000 base stations by the end of 2018. CEO Lowell McAdam told investors he wants to quickly reach 30 million homes, while Goldman Sachs estimated Verizon planned to spend US$20 billion for this initial phase to 2021/22 – although there is no publicised schedule. Verizon’s investments include the acquisition of XO Communications for US$1.8 billion, which has fibre in 45 of the 50 largest cities, which Verizon sees as vital infrastructure for its 5G build.

The base stations will support mobile 5G as soon as the handsets are ready. Leading mobile chip vendor Qualcomm expects a limited number of mobile phone chips to be available by the end of 2018. Sufficient chips for phones in volume are expected by mid-year 2019.[1] Taiwan’s MediaTek, the number two 4G chipmaker, says it will “hit the 5G chip market with a bang in 2019”.[2]

Verizon is building a state-of-the-art network in 800MHz of spectrum at 28GHz using existing towers and new small cells, delivering a peak speed of 10 gigabits per second or lower. A consumer in a good location should get a true gigabit in both directions, with mobile network latency of between 5 ms and 20 ms.[3]

This will probably be the largest fast 5G network built before the next decade. The Chinese operators will mostly be using frequencies below 6GHz, which will be 65% to 85% slower.

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Verizon’s large fixed opportunity

In two-thirds of the US, Verizon sells wireless but is not the incumbent wireline carrier. With limited unbundling at present, it cannot offer a landline (or equivalent) service to over 70 million of its wireless customers. It therefore cannot offer quadruple play for higher revenue, lower churn and better margins.

Yet in half the US, there is only one choice for decent broadband: the cable company. Over half of US cable has been upgraded to gigabit download speeds, and over three-quarters of the country will be offered gigabit cable by the end of 2019.[4] Faster speeds contributed to the 2.7 million broadband subscriptions cable added in 2017.

Figure 1: Cable is dominating US broadband

Cable dominates US broadband

Source: Leichtman Research based on company filings

In many places, the telephone companies have not upgraded decade-old DSL lines and are not competitive with their cable counterparts.  In 2017, US telephone companies lost 625,000 broadband subscriptions.

McAdam expects to quickly win 10– 20% of the new market Verizon can address. Dean Bubley notes it is very difficult to persuade reasonably happy customers to switch, but cable service in the US is notoriously bad. Verizon’s long-term goal is 40– 50%, consistent with its results where it has FIOS fibre to the home. CFO Matt Ellis believes, “When you look at other cities outside of the ILEC footprint, offering consumer services using 5G is, we think, going to have a lot of upside for the company.”[5]

Contents:

  • Executive summary
  • The contentions of Verizon and other proponents
  • Doubts about proponents’ claims
  • Crucial questions to resolve
  • Introduction
  • Verizon’s path
  • Verizon’s large fixed opportunity
  • Verizon’s cost estimates
  • What carriers should consider based on Verizon’s choice
  • Two crucial questions for predicting when you will need mmWave
  • Will there be a large first-mover advantage?
  • AT&T is divided on 5G
  • Two carriers’ planning for uncertainty
  • Preparing for 5G: contingency scenarios
  • 5G: Vendor insight
  • Risks to this analysis
  • Technology appendix
  • Advances in 4G LTE and mid-band 5G also deliver enormous capacity

Figures:

  • Figure 1: Cable is dominating US broadband
  • Figure 2: NTT DOCOMO capex by generation and traffic demand
  • Figure 3: Verizon finds 5G requires fewer cells than 4G in some locations
  • Figure 4: Samsung test data comparing LTE 1.8GHz versus 5G GHz
  • Figure 5: Wireless traffic growth to 2021
  • Figure 6: Samsung indoor and outdoor mmWave CPE

[1] http://bit.ly/2JR2bVK

[2] http://bit.ly/2la0q8c

[3] End-to-end latency for a user will depend on how far their data request needs to go into the network and the Internet. If the signal has to go from one side of the US to the other it will take longer than a locally or edge hosted service.

[4]  https://www.fastnet.news/index.php/cable/641-gigabit-broadband-downstream-available-to-50m-u-s-homes

[5] https://www.verizon.com/about/investors/jp-morgan-global-technology-media-and-communications-conference-2018

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Gigabit Cable Attacks This Year

Introduction

Since at least May, 2014 and the Triple Play in the USA Executive Briefing, we have been warning that the cable industry’s continuous improvement of its DOCSIS 3 technology threatens fixed operators with a succession of relatively cheap (in terms of CAPEX) but dramatic speed jumps. Gigabit chipsets have been available for some time, with the actual timing of the roll-out being therefore set by cable operators’ commercial choices.

With the arrival of DOCSIS 3.1, multi-gigabit cable has also become available. As a result, cable operators have become the best value providers in the broadband mass markets: typically, we found in the Triple Play briefing, they were the cheapest in terms of price/megabit in the most common speed tiers, at the time between 50 and 100Mbps. They were sometimes also the leaders for outright speed, and this has had an effect. In Q3 2014, for the first time, Comcast had more high-speed Internet subscribers than it had TV subscribers, on a comparable basis. Furthermore, in Europe, cable industry revenues grew 4.6% in 2014 while the TV component grew 1.8%. In other words, cable operators are now broadband operators above all.

Figure 1: Comcast now has more broadband than TV customers

Source: STL Partners, Comcast Q1 2015 trending schedule 

In the December, 2014 Will AT&T shed copper, fibre-up, or buy more content – and what are the lessons? Executive Briefing, we covered the impact on AT&T’s consumer wireline business, and pointed out that its strategy of concentrating on content as opposed to broadband has not really delivered. In the context of ever more competition from streaming video, it was necessary to have an outstanding broadband product before trying to add content revenues. This was something which their DSL infrastructure couldn’t deliver in the context of cable or fibre competitors. The cable competition concentrated on winning whole households’ spending with broadband, with content as an upsell, and has undermined the wireline base to the point where AT&T might well exit a large proportion of it or perhaps sell off the division, refocusing on wireless, DirecTV satellite TV, and enterprise. At the moment, Comcast sees about 2 broadband net-adds for each triple-play net-add, although the increasing numbers of business ISP customers complicate the picture.

Figure 2: Sell the broadband and you get the whole bundle. About half Comcast’s broadband growth is associated with triple-play signups

Source: STL, Comcast Q1 trending schedule

Since Christmas, the trend has picked up speed. Comcast announced a 2Gbps deployment to 1.5 million homes in the Atlanta metropolitan area, with a national deployment to follow. Time Warner Cable has announced a wave of upgrades in Charlotte, North Carolina that ups their current 30Mbps tier to 200Mbps and their 50Mbps tier to 300Mbps, after Google Fiber announced plans to deploy in the area. In the UK, Virgin Media users have been reporting unusually high speeds, apparently because the operator is trialling a 300Mbps speed tier, not long after it upgraded 50Mbps users to 152Mbps.

It is very much worth noting that these deployments are at scale. The Comcast and TWC rollouts are in the millions of premises. When the Virgin Media one reaches production status, it will be multi-million too. Vodafone-owned KDG in Germany is currently deploying 200Mbps, and it will likely go further as soon as it feels the need from a tactical point of view. This is the advantage of an upgrade path that doesn’t require much trenching. Not only can the upgrades be incremental and continuous, they can also be deployed at scale without enormous disruption.

Technology is driving the cable surge

This year’s CES saw the announcement, by Broadcom, of a new system-on-a-chip (SoC) for cable modems/STBs that integrates the new DOCSIS 3.1 cable standard. This provides for even more speeds, theoretically up to 7Gbps downlink, while still providing a broadcast path for pure TV. The SoC also, however, includes a WLAN radio with the newest 802.11ac technology, including beamforming and 4×4 multiple-input and multiple-output (MIMO), which is rated for gigabit speeds in the local network.

Even taking into account the usual level of exaggeration, this is an impressive package, offering telco-hammering broadband speeds, support for broadcast TV, and in-home distribution at speeds that can keep up with 4K streaming video. These are the SoCs that Comcast will be using for its gigabit cable rollouts. STMicroelectronics demonstrated its own multigigabit solution at CES, and although Intel has yet to show a DOCSIS 3.1 SoC, the most recent version of its Puma platform offers up to 1.6Gbps in a DOCSIS 3 network. DOCSIS 3 and 3.1 are designed to be interoperable, so this product has a future even after the head-ends are upgraded.

Figure 3: This is your enemy. Broadcom’s DOCSIS3.1/802.11ac chipset

Source: RCRWireless 

With multiple chipset vendors shipping products, CableLabs running regular interoperability tests, and large regional deployments beginning, we conclude that the big cable upgrade is now here. Even if cable operators succeed in virtualising their set-top box software, you can’t provide the customer-end modem nor the WiFi router from the cloud. It’s important to realise that FTTH operators can upgrade in a similarly painless way by replacing their optical network terminals (ONTs), but DSL operators need to replace infrastructure. Also, ONTs are often independent from the WLAN router or other customer equipment , so the upgrade won’t necessarily improve the WiFi.

WiFi is also getting a major upgrade

The Broadcom device is so significant, though, because of the very strong WiFi support built in with the cable modem. Like the cable industry, the WiFi ecosystem has succeeded in keeping up a steady cycle of continuous improvements that are usually backwards compatible, from 802.11b through to 802.11ac, thanks to a major standards effort, the scale that Intel and Apple’s support gives us, and its relatively light intellectual property encumbrance.

802.11ac adds a number of advanced radio features, notably multiple-user MIMO, beamforming, and higher-density modulation, that are only expected to arrive in the cellular network as part of 5G some time after 2020, as well as some incremental improvements over 802.11n, like additional MIMO streams, wider channels, and 5GHz spectrum by default. As a result, the industry refers to it as “gigabit WiFi”, although the gigabit is a per-station rather than per-user throughput.

The standard has been settled since January 2014, and support is available in most flagship-class devices and laptop chipsets since then, so this is now a reality. The upgrade of the cable networks to 802.11ac WiFi backed with DOCSIS3.1 will have major strategic consequences for telcos, as it enables the cable operators and any strategic partners of theirs to go in even harder on the fixed broadband business and also launch a WiFi-plus-MVNO mobile service at the same time. The beamforming element of 802.11ac should help them to support higher user densities, as it makes use of the spatial diversity among different stations to reduce interference. Cablevision already launched a mobile service just before Christmas. We know Comcast is planning to launch one sometime this year, as they have been hiring a variety of mobile professionals quite aggressively. And, of course, the CableWiFi roaming alliance greatly facilitates scaling up such a service. The economics of a mini-carrier, as we pointed out in the Google MVNO: What’s Behind It and What Are the Implications? Executive Briefing, hinge on how much traffic can be offloaded to WiFi or small cells.

Figure 4: Modelling a mini-carrier shows that the WiFi is critical

Source: STL Partners

Traffic carried on WiFi costs nothing in terms of spectrum and much less in terms of CAPEX (due to the lower intellectual property tax and the very high production runs of WiFi equipment). In a cable context, it will often be backhauled in the spare capacity of the fixed access network, and therefore will account for very little additional cost on this score. As a result, the percentage of data traffic transferred to WiFi, or absorbed by it, is a crucial variable. KDDI, for example, carries 57% of its mobile data traffic on WiFi and hopes to reach 65% by the end of this year. Increasing the fraction from 30% to 57% roughly halved their CAPEX on LTE.

A major regulatory issue at the moment is the deployment of LTE-LAA (Licensed-Assisted Access), which aggregates unlicensed radio spectrum with a channel from licensed spectrum in order to increase the available bandwidth. The 5GHz WiFi band is the most likely candidate for this, as it is widely available, contains a lot of capacity, and is well-supported in hardware.

We should expect the cable industry to push back very hard against efforts to rush deployment of LTE-LAA cellular networks through the regulatory process, as they have a great deal to lose if the cellular networks start to take up a large proportion of the 5GHz band. From their point of view, a major purpose of LTE-LAA might be to occupy the 5GHz and deny it to their WiFi operations.

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Technology is driving the cable surge
  • WiFi is also getting a major upgrade
  • Wholesale and enterprise markets are threatened as well
  • The Cable Surge Is Disrupting Wireline
  • Conclusions
  • STL Partners and Telco 2.0: Change the Game 
  • Figure 1: Comcast now has more broadband than TV customers
  • Figure 2: Sell the broadband and you get the whole bundle. About half Comcast’s broadband growth is associated with triple-play signups
  • Figure 3: This is your enemy. Broadcom’s DOCSIS3.1/802.11ac chipset
  • Figure 4: Modelling a mini-carrier shows that the WiFi is critical
  • Figure 5: Comcast’s growth is mostly driven by business services and broadband
  • Figure 6: Comcast Business is its growth start with a 27% CAGR
  • Figure 7: Major cablecos even outdo AT&T’s stellar performance in the enterprise
  • Figure 8: 3 major cable operators’ business services are now close to AT&T or Verizon’s scale
  • Figure 9: Summary of gigabit deployments
  • Figure 10: CAPEX as a % of revenue has been falling for some time…