Monday, June 28, 2010

DSL reaches end of line as interim pre-fiber to the premises technology

Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) was deployed by telcos starting in the late 1990s as an interim technology to bring Internet Protocol-based telecommunications services to customer premises before fiber optic connections could be brought to them.

Now DSL faces a crisis that dramatically shortens the days it can play this role. While DSL allows telcos to use existing copper plant designed for Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS), that copper plant is aged and deteriorating quickly. DSL tends to work best over newer, more pristine copper. But there's not much of that (if any) being deployed these days. Meanwhile, DSL customers complain about connections that run slower than advertised or are prone to outages as DSL signals struggle across ancient pairs of twisted copper.

And since about 2008 and amid the current economic downturn, telcos have pared back their DSL rollouts. Verizon concentrated on fiber to the premises via its FiOS product offering, prompting customer complaints it was neglecting its copper plant and repairing it with bubble gum and duct tape.

Here's the crisis: Now that DSL has served its role as an interim IP solution on the road to fiber to the premises, the United States is not prepared to make the transition to fiber. Stunningly, this gap in the technology transition isn't addressed in the Federal Communications Commission's National Broadband Plan issued this past spring. Nor is there any indication the nation's two largest telcos are seriously addressing it. Verizon recently halted build out of its FiOS fiber plant. AT&T opted for a hybrid model of fiber to the node and copper to the premise for its U-Verse product. But the VDSL transmission technology that powers U-Verse suffers from far greater distance limitations than previous generations of DSL and greatly limits U-Verse's service footprint.

It will fall to smaller, locally owned and operated telcos, local governments and telecom cooperatives to pick up where DSL left off (or in many cases, left out for those not serviceable by DSL). The National Broadband Plan should recognize that DSL over copper is dead or dying and support efforts by these entities to deploy fiber to the premises with technical assistance grants and infrastructure construction grants and low cost loans.

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