Boosting copper: necessary and dangerous

BBWF Europe next week will clearly be about copper. Virtually every vendor or PR agency that contacted me wanted to brief me on VDSL, vectoring, bonding and all that jazz. Just this morning, Alcatel-Lucent announced their big push in this direction (see Alcatel-Lucent accelerates the availability of superfast broadband.) My coverage of these technologies on fiberevolution in the past might have seemed somewhat simplistic, and it may have come accross as me disagreeing with them without nuance. That's actually not where I think their role is. 

Broad FTTH deployment is a long-term endeavour. It's unlikely that any country other than really small ones (like Singapour) or really authoritarian ones (like China) will achieve any broad scale deployment in less than ten years. The question of the quality of services delivered to the people who will not be in the early waves of fiber to the home deployment will therefore be crucial. And FTTC, enhanced by Vectoring and Bonding if necessary can be a stop gap to ensure that while these people don't get as good service as the ones connected with fiber, they will at least get services that allow them to continue experiencing internet services in tolerable comfort (let's not forget that as average capacity to the home increases accross the world, the average load of websites and online services will also increase…)

That's why I don't oppose VDSL2, bonding, vectoring and other phantom modes on principle. I do however believe that there are a couple of real dangers associated with these technologies. The first is clearly that they give the opportunity to incumbents who hate the idea of deploying FTTH to simply substitute VDSL2 for FTTH and not undergo the necessary network investments. That's a really short-term view that can only have dire consequences in the long-term. Instead of being a stop gap on the way to FTTH, VDSL2 becomes an end in and of itself. That's clearly the path that AT&T, BT and Belgacom (to name a few) have chosen, and while it might look like it's solved the "problem", wait a couple of years and we'll have to go through the whole rigmarole of insufficient service levels and slipping OECD broadband rankings again.

Furthermore, I have some real questions about how these technologies can be implemented in countries with progressive access regulation without jeopardizing the models that have proven their worth. In the UK, we have already seen quite clearly that the implementation of FTTC pushes the market from a proven unbundling access regime to an unproven bitstream access regime. It's quite clear why incumbents would want that, it's a lot less clear why competitive operators should. And it's very unclear how regulators are dealing with these issues. A few years ago, a number of European NRAs  (ARCEP and OPTA spring to mind) VDSL was considered not to be a solution that would sustain a competitive market  for just these reasons, so I'm a little puzzled as to what has changed now…

How do these technologies cohabit with unbundled copper regimes, I wonder. That's really what I'll be investigating at BBWF: is there a regulatory risk associated with VDSL and how can it be dealt with?