BBWF Vibe

I've always felt that Broadband World Forum was just the right size for a telecom event. It's big enough that more or less everyone who is anyone is there, which for me – as an analyst – is a boon as it allows me access to all the people I need to talk to or be briefed by in a single spot and over a short period of time. It's (thankfully) not MWC sized so you can still get your bearings and – exhausting as my days at BBWF were – you can still be efficient and get a feel for the trends. This is what this post is about, at least as seen by my particular worldview, that of the access network.

There are essentially three trends that were very apparent at BBWF:

  • Copper is here to stay (at least for a while): Every provider I talked to at BBWF knows that fiber will need to be deployed closer to the home and – ultimately – into the home. They tend to disagree on how and how fast. With vendors announcing trial speeds upwards of 500 Mbps over multiple bonded copper pairs with vectoring and the so-called "phantom mode" it's not surprising that providers should hesitate on the way to go (in fact NSN had such an announcement during the show). I had a long and animated discussion with the people from Assia, the company who owns the patents on all of these copper rejuvenation technologies and offers them as products to providers around the world. It's quite clear that they think boosted copper is 'good enough'. I'm not so sure, but there's no denying that even if a migration to FTTH is in the works, providers will need to enhance the part of the network that is still copper based while said migration happens.
  • Flexibility in the OLT: Perhaps as a consequence of the inevitability of copper and fiber coexisting for at least one aggregation network investment cycle if not more, vendors at BBWF were pushing hard on the single OLT concept. The idea is basically to avoid duplicating equipment in the local exchange and/or CO by having OLTs that can aggregate ADSL, VDSL, PON and EP2P lines. At least three vendors were pushing hard on this idea: Alcatel Lucent, ECI and NSN. While I can absolutely see the appeal, I also heard from some providers that they would be reluctant to use costly fiber real estate for copper lines, so I guess the jury is still out on whether this trend actually makes a difference for service providers. This has been confirmed to me by Ericsson who said that while their OLTs have been supporting this for a while they didn't see significant demand for this feature.
  • WDM-PON starts showing its hand: Until now, WDM-PON was mostly a quasi-mythical future evolution of PON, and as such not necessarily worth being part of the decision-making picture of today. For me, this edition of BBWF changed that. Both ADVA and NSN had well-honed and strong discourse about how WDM-PON is positioned, and it's not as an evolution of PON (or at least not only). Basically, the whole promise of WDM-PON is to fold the access and aggregation network together to be able to radically reshape the network and shrink the number of Central Offices dramatically. That's the appeal, with a few remaining issues to be solved: will the technology be ready before providers have to invest in some form of FTTH infrastructure? will they get the price of CPEs down to a level that is commercially viable?

BBWF mostly has a vendor vibe and while providers do speak in the conference sections of the event (I missed most of those, except the two I was speaking at…) they don't have stands and aren't present beyond their own interest in understanding the vendor solutions. The overarching theme for this conference was really about how to make the business model and bandwidth demand growth work for telcos. Vendors are playing an ambiguous game there since they offer solutions of sorts on the one hand (content distribution, API enabled network solutions, etc.) but relish (and encourage) the traffic increase on the other.

Perhaps the biggest difference with past events is that providers now understand what the issue is, and are gradually accepting that the solution will not come from governments repealing net neutrality (which wouldn't really change anything anyway, as I've argued here abundantly) but rather that they need to embrace change. Maybe future editions of BBWF will show us who managed to deal with the transformation… and who didn't.

Oh, and before I go, a special mention to ADVA Optical's stand which was the absolute best of the show: they had a non-alcoholic cocktail bar with amazing drinks available. Stellar idea!