Dead or Alive? Copper Loops Merit Major New Platform Upgrade Investments

Brian Washburn
Brian Washburn

Summary Bullets:

  • Counter to those who declare copper networks obsolete, platforms taking advantage of existing copper plant are drawing healthy new investment.
  • Both incumbents and competitive carriers are deploying platforms that wring faster speeds out of existing copper plant.

The telecom industry hasn’t talked up copper networking for years: Twisted-pair wire just doesn’t have the allure of fiber or wireless. But even with projects such as Verizon FiOS having run for many years, removing all copper from access networks has proved too expensive and difficult to be a feasible goal. Fiber steadily finds its way into access networks, but carriers – both incumbents and their facilities-based competitors – are also continuing to stretch existing copper plant in new ways. Just since the beginning of November, there has been a flurry of new industry activity:

* XO Communications announced it would increase the number of central offices where the company offers Ethernet over copper (EoC) to more than 500 central offices (COs) before the end of the year.  At last count, XO had about 450 COs with the technology deployed. XO also has decided to begin marketing EoC speeds that reach up to 100 Mbps; the company’s highest prior official speed tier has been 20 Mbps.

* Integra Telecom announced it would increase the top speed for its EoC offer from 30 Mbps to 60 Mbps. Integra Telecom has more than 120 COs in its regional network outfitted with EoC platforms.

* MegaPath completed its national rollout of additional EoC infrastructure last month, reaching 693 COs with deployed platforms. MegaPath is the single largest national operator of EoC platforms, with services that officially reach up to 45 Mbps. The carrier now also augments its EoC service with a new Ethernet over DS1 variant, available at speeds up to 12 Mbps, which MegaPath can provide across extended service areas in 25 of its markets to fill its EoC coverage gaps.

* AT&T’s Project Velocity IP plan earmarks $6 billion of the $14 billion, three-year network investment plan for wireline IP. Besides deploying fiber to many more commercial buildings, Project Velocity IP includes massive new buildouts of U-Verse IP DSL access multiplexer (IPDSLAM) gear reaching consumers and businesses, and an increase of U-Verse IPDSLAM speeds up to 45 Mbps in the near term (and an even faster 75 Mbps for other U-Verse customers). U-Verse services currently top out at 24 Mbps for businesses and consumers. While U-Verse IPDSLAM is not the same as competitive carriers’ EoC rollouts, they both use underlying, advanced xDSL transport formats that take advantage of existing copper access plant.

The above recent flurry of enhancements isn’t all that’s happened. There are plenty of established competitors with substantial EoC infrastructure already deployed. CenturyLink has been a major investor in EoC within its local footprint, and AT&T was an early innovator with the technology in its southeastern U.S. region. Competitive carriers like Windstream, TelePacific, EarthLink Business and Broadview each also have substantial EoC investments; Windstream already declared support for 100 Mbps and even faster speeds in 2011. For a technology that some long ago had declared obsolete, in all that’s a lot of new attention on copper plant.

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