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The Last 100 Yards

9/24/2007, By Tim McElligott

The last mile of a fiber network is mostly stable and standardized -- right up to the point it crosses into the home, where it is often neither

Early deployments of fiber to the home and to the node are going exceedingly well. But according to some test companies, the locations for these early deployments may have been cherry-picked for the best results. As service becomes more ubiquitous, many surprises await technicians trying to turn it up in homes with wiring jobs that can be best described as done by do-it-yourselfers.

This is when the fun begins for installers. Lucky for them, test companies have anticipated this final hurdle in the great fiber expansion and are coming to market with new solutions to help the process go more smoothly. If the number by Parks Associates is correct, 30 million homes will be networked for broadband and entertainment by 2010. This is great news for service providers. However, their target markets are in the hundreds of millions, and that leaves a lot of homes with less than optimum infrastructure.

�In-home wiring is a big concern for our customers,� said Trevor Smith, program manager for fiber-to-the-x (FTTx) solutions for ADC. �They often have to make trade-offs between using existing in-home wiring or footing the bill for new wiring.�

Service providers don't want to foot that bill if they don't have to and are already solving some of these issues using standards for in-home networking such as the Multimedia over Coax Alliance (MoCA), which uses existing coaxial cable in the home, and HomePNA.

MoCA was established at the start of 2004 to take advantage of the coaxial cable it says is installed in 90% of U.S. households. The HomePNA Alliance is an association founded in 1998 that is trying to develop universal home networking solutions by leveraging existing telephone wires and coax cable. AT&T recently began to co-opt the coaxial cable already in the home (a strategy that Verizon had from the start) and shift frequency bands so that it works with VDSL.

Whatever the situation inside the home, which often can be characterized with the old military acronym SNAFU, the goal of service providers is to make their processes and tools as consistent as possible from technician to technician and from installation to installation. The larger carriers have created new workgroups to manage the installation of fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) services and would like to train them all the same way, said Assaji Aluwihare, general manager of the network and enterprise test business unit for JDSU's communications test and measurement division.

�If you're building a large work group, consistency and process are key from a test equipment perspective,� Aluwihare said.

He said that a technician considers the same questions for every installation: How much bandwidth do I need to get around the house? Where does it need to go? What's in the wall, and what does the customer want it to be? Unfortunately, the answers are seldom the same. In response to this dilemma, JDSU is kicking off a new campaign next week to promote what it calls its task-ready network and enterprise test solutions. The Know Your Network campaign is all about providing tools to workers who maintain enterprise networks, manage in-premises network performance and conduct network installation.

Known for its network test equipment, JDSU is highlighting many of the tools it now possesses as a result of its May 2006 acquisition of Test-Um. Based in Camarillo, Calif., Test-Um specialized in home networking test instruments for the FTTx and digital cable markets. Its products include a set of home-wiring test instruments for the verification, installation and maintenance of Category 3, Category 5 and coaxial cables used in home and small office networks for the delivery of voice over IP, IPTV and other services. The tools perform the still-necessary functions of verifying the line conditions and power-signal levels, tone-tracing to locate and track cable runs, and analyzing advanced service troubleshooting. However, now that they have been integrated into the JDSU portfolio, the company can provide tools for every part of the network.

�We have played in the cable and telco space for so long, we know the in-house environment, and we have been able to bring test tools together for that space in a unique way,� Aluwihare said.

One of those unique ways was to build a custom test tool for one of the two largest FTTx players in the U.S. The test tool combines testing for multiple protocols and wiring configurations into a single unit. However, not all situations call for an all-in-one tool. Aluwihare said that testing for home wiring is the growth market for telcos, but they all have different preferences: Some want a purpose-built tool for a specific job, while others want multipurpose tools.

The ultimate goal, however, is the same: reduce the cost of installation and ensure the quality of the plant inside the home. The latter may one day lead to service providers getting back into the home wiring business because as Aluwihare said: �Once you groom a home for premise networking, your cost of churn becomes extremely high. The cable company can come in and take that plant, and that's a tough cost to bear. That's why the quality of experience has to be high, so the customer doesn't want to switch.�

Sunrise Telecom also is playing a big role in the rollout of FTTx services. As Bob Heintz, vice president of sales for Sunrise Telecom, said, �The interesting conversation is what happens inside the house.

�It's nothing like a traditional turn-up to the node where you shoot light down a fiber and take a few measurements, or in some cases just wait for the service to come up,� Heintz said. �It's all new inside there.�

Heintz said Sunrise has seen a dramatic increase in demand due to FTTH, as well as related work in FTTN installations, and its largest volume is coming from a North American Tier 1 provider. He said telephone companies have limited ability to test video, especially over IP. Their capabilities inside the home have been limited as well, whether the wiring there is coaxial or copper. �And wireless? Forget it,� he said.

In addition to having its own modular test tools that address the basic needs of in-home wiring, the Sunrise's Home Test Toolkit allows in-home technicians to conduct test routines for VDSL, radio frequency signal levels, Ethernet, 802.11x wireless, LANs and POTS. The company also is focusing on standards-based solutions, particularly HPNA.

In May, Sunrise Telecom � along with other equipment vendors such as Coppergate, Motorola, Scientific Atlanta and Sendtek � was certified by the HomeNPA to be interoperable with the HomePNA's own 3.1 multimedia home networking specification.

The challenge for service providers, Heintz said, is that along with all the new protocols and wire types, they are trying to get the job done with a whole new cast of technicians. �They don't want to hire Ph.D.s for these installations, so we have to simplify the test tools,� he said. �We have to take something that is technically complex and turn it into a red light/green light, go/no-go type of testing.�

He said taking an installation down from five hours to three would go a long way toward justifying the investment in test gear. And while the company has a set of test tools for technicians, it plans in the next week or two to announce a new tool for technicians based on a scaled-down version of its outside plant test tool. �It can span from the outside plant to the home,� Heintz said.

According to S2 Data Corp., wireless technology will become the fastest-growing in-home networking technology. This presents a whole new set of challenges for the various service providers and their technicians, one for which the test companies are already working on new solutions.