Telcos Mix Copper, Fiber in IPTV Diet

Experts say that telephone companies will be using a mix of fiber and copper network assets to field television to their customers — and for both options Internet protocol will play an increasing role.

When the regional Bell operators and other independent telephone companies “start moving into greenfield housing developments, they are doing fiber there,” said Michael Arden, principal analyst for ABI Research. “But I think everyone is still hesitant to go back in and rip out anything that is already there and is working well enough, and replace it with fiber.”

Roseville, Calif.-based SureWest Communications, for instance, offers digital TV, digital subscriber line and phone service using a mix of copper and fiber. As of the fourth quarter, it claimed 27,876 broadband customers tapping data and TV service using copper-based DSL connections, and 20,039 customers accessing those services via fiber.

SureWest has two distinct service territories. In its Roseville home base, it is the incumbent local exchange carrier (ILEC) and offers primarily copper-based DSL services. In the Sacramento area it is the competitive provider and offers an entirely fiber-based service that competes with Comcast Corp.

The core television service for DSL or fiber customers sports more than 270 channels plus data service. For fiber customers, the high-speed data service ramps from 1 Mbps to at least 10 Mbps, and the 17 HD-channel lineup is added.

In contrast to other telco TV services such as Verizon Inc.’s FiOS TV that actually beam old fashioned MPEG-2 (Moving Picture Experts Group) radio frequency TV signals into customer homes — and therefore are not technically IPTV — SureWest is 100% IP. Carl Murray, SureWest director of strategic technology said the telco looked at using RF for TV signals, but “you can’t do RF over both copper and fiber, and we wanted one headend to serve both.”

While fiber-fed customers receive 17 HD channels, including an assortment of local channels plus premium cable channels, that’s not the case with its copper-connected DSL television offerings. “[For] a 19.4 [Mbps] HD signal bandwidth, DSL just isn’t up to snuff,” Murray said.

Indeed, for SureWest and other telcos relying in part on copper, the bandwidth limits are becoming more keenly felt, particularly given pressure from cable operators’ TV services. But there are some potential bandwidth Band-Aids on the horizon, including Very High Speed DSL2.

An update to the existing VDSL standard, VDSL2 can theoretically support as high as 100 Mbps per connection. But as with all DSL technologies, the throughput drops off dramatically the farther away a home is from the neighborhood central office.

Telcos may choose to combat this by not replacing the copper entirely, but rather extending their fiber-optic networks closer to the customer, according to Floyd Wagoner, senior manager of global marketing for Motorola Corp. wireline networks. Through its acquisition of Next Level Communications in 2003, Motorola now claims 60% of the IPTV equipment market.

SureWest is also keeping an eye on MPEG-4, a newer video codec that can cut the bandwidth payload for a 19.4 Mbps HD signal in half.

And while SureWest is generally targeting all new home construction projects for all-fiber connections, it has no plans to start ripping it out and replacing it wholesale with all-fiber links.

“We can go in and pull brand new fiber, but look at the expense and cost to do that,” Murray said. “You have a perfectly good plant sitting out there and technology to deliver it, so we want to leverage it.”