Thursday, May 21, 2009

Impressions from the FTTHCAP Conference, 2009

The 2009 Fiber to the Home Council Asia Pacific (FTTHCAP) 2009 conference in Melbourne, Australia has wrapped up after two very packed days of activities. Below are some notes for general consumption. I would, of course, like to hear from anyone with differing opinions.

General Themes

Open access was touted a large number of speakers. From the new Australian NBN to Indonesia to Bangladesh, open access was much more prevalent that I would have expected. The definition of open access varied from the more expected service-level competition on a shared physical and electrical plant to Singapore's competition at every leve concept where even the physical layer is competitive. This is much different from the US market where, outside of the UTOPIA project, there haven't been many open networks. The difference probably has something to do both with government mandates in other countries and the US incumbent's refusal to service open network.

The technology of choice was overwhelmingly GPON. Despite the conventional wisdom that North America is GPON and Asia is EPON, speaker after speaker spoke of their decision to go with GPON over EPON. (Greece is going point-to-point, but they were the only ones to claim that technology.)

The Australian NBN buildout was the elephant in the room, but in this case everyone was acutally talking about said elephant. Australia is going to try to connect fiber to 90% of their population, which will immediately put them at the top of the FTTH pile. All of the vendors and local carriers want a part of this, of course, so sessions on NBN were packed beyond capacity.

In fact, the entire show was packed beyond capacity. The official nubers say that 500 "delegate" attended. The infrastructure was likely geared for about 300, as nearly every session had people standing in the back. The layout of the show was a bit of a problem, with the sessions being on one end of the hotel and the expo being separated into two very distinct areas, both on the other end of the hotel. Once people left the sessions, it was difficult to get them back (although a gentleman with an ear-splitting bell did his best). Also, it was not clear how many people knew that the expo was in two areas, with one area seeming to get significantly less traffic than the other. Talking with folks in the expo revealed that large North American style trade shows are the exception here, and the attendance at this show was considered enormous. Perhaps a better location just did not exist.

Some specifics

The opening talk by Singapore was very well done. Singapore is small and very dense, so FTTH is ideal. In the latest tender, they are requiring 100Mbps downstream (upgradable to more), 50Mbps upstream (peak), and a guaranteed 25Mbps downstream under all conditions. This will be an open access network at all levels from passive to services. GPON will be used for most of the deployments, but Active Ethernet will also have a role. The government is investing about S$750M in a grant to the "NetCo" (infrastructure) companies and about S$250 to the "OpCo" in a public-private partnership. These PPPs were mentioned by many speakers and have a great potential to speed deployment of new infrastructures. In places like Singapore, PPPs are probably easier to pull off than they would be in the US, where concerns about public/private partnerships are part of the American DNA.

Greece was in the unfortunate position of following Singapore, which would have been difficult for anyone. Greece is planning to build a next-gen access network, but only in the 3 largest cities. The government is investing E2.1B (sorry, don't know how to make a Euro symbol) in a PPP. The network will be point to point with a goal of 100Mbps to the user. This is a worthy effort that would have been remarkable if it had not been overshadowed by Singapore.

BSNL's deployments in India are on a scale that no one else can match (well, maybe China, but they aren't talking). India has over 220M households of which only 50% have televisions and most of which do not have fixed-line telephones. The lack of fixed-line is partially because many have chosen wireless instead. There are over 15M new mobile phone users added every month. Note that said month, not quarter, not year. Interestingly, BSNL has chosen to deploy both GEPON and GPON. "A-class" cities get GPON and "B-class" cities get EPON. The definitions of A-class and B-class are just what you'd expect, meaning that more prosperous areas get GPON and the unwashed masses get EPON. Why this decision was made was not explained. In addition to EPON and GPON, BSNL is deploying ADSL, ADSL2+, VDSL, VDSL2+, Wimax, etc., etc., etc. This is a huge undertaking, and apparently everyone's getting a taste. By 2015, over 8 million households will have new broadband connections, and that will just scratch the surface in India.

The Australian NBN buildout has a goal of hitting 90% of the households. All greenfields are mandated to by FTTH starting next year. This is a huge political as well as technological challenge. The speech given by Senator Conry mentioned his opposition - by name - at least ten times. Even the local news had opposition leaders denegrating the plan. Representatives from Tazmania, where the NBN is expected to start, were quite aware that the whole world is watching them. There are a lot of challenges to overcome but, based on my personal experience with broadband in the hotel, it is a welcome change.

Hong Kong is always fascinating to hear about. The talk from HKBN included details on their management training program, which includes requirements like running a half marathon and going through a "Survivor" experience. HKBN is already offering 1Gbps to homes. They had an interesting sales strategy: they would go to a building and offer free 100Mbps broadband for a year. One year later, when they started charging, 80% of the original takers starting paying for the service. What is particularly interesting about this strategy is that it bypasses the typical chick-and-egg problem of no applications for high speed bandwidth means no one takes high speed bandwidth which means no one makes applications for high speed bandwidth. Another very interesting slide presented showed that upload demand is 3X download demand. The reasons were not clear and, honestly, HKBN doesn't really care. The speaker suggested that perhaps content was being created on his network that was being consumed elsewhere, which seems reasonable.

Malaysia's broadband rollout is in two phases: broadband for the general public (BBGP) and high speed broadband (HSBB). BBGP is only 4Mbps and will be a combination of wireless and fixed. HSBB will be over 10Mbps and based on fiber (GPON). It is interesting to see a provider openly admit to discriminating against the "general public", although not unusual to see it happen in practice. The goal is 50% penetration by 2010 with an interesing twist. Wireless customers are only counted as 0.4 households in the calculation. This weights the result towards long-term infrastructure improvements, which is a good thing. The government is investing US$700million with TM investing the rest, in yet another PPP.

Presentations from local Australian FTTH providers were fascinating if for no other reason than for the difference between US and Australian second tier providers. Again, open networks were touted by the Australians. US problems like legal challenges are not problems in Australia. GPON was the technology of choice, but implementations were different. One provider is putting "free to air" video onto the overlay at no charge, and is therefore a service provider as well as a network providers. The other insists that this is a conflict of interest and is not providing any services.

As an aside, one of the local Australian providers was quite arrogant in his presentation, which would not necessarily been a problem if his facts had been correct. He made assertions that he was "personally informed" that the IEEE and ITU 10G PON standards would be the same. That is not true. He stated that network providers should tell vendors to "go away" if they can't provide at least 4 Ethernet ports. Other providers in Australia took great offence at that statement. He denigrated at least two vendors by name, which was bad form all around. And he left the session during the next speaker, so I did not have a chance to confront him. His talk did generate a lot of discussion in the evening social events, but probably not for the reasons that he expected.

Speaking of social sessions, these were handled very well. The evening "gala dinner" was quite nice, but I got in without paying the $100 or so that others had to play (we were a sponsor). It would be interesting to hear if those who paid for the event thought the same way. The entertainment was passble, but who needs a dance band when 99% of the attendees are men? In general, the entertainment could have been left alone, as conversation was difficult and conversation was the reason that most of us were there.

Overall, this was a very well done conference and certainly worth attending for me. Next year, I'll see you in Seoul.

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