The toughest leg of the internet to upgrade has always been the last mile, and especially the last few hundred feet. But with Verizon’s FIOS rollout slowing down as Google Fiber and others still trying to prove the FTTH model elsewhere, it is here where technological advances can do a lot of good. With us today is Adam Krozel, Business Development Manager at 3M’s Communications division to talk about 3M’s approach to changing the economics in the last few hundred feet in multiple dwelling units (MDUs).
TR: From a traffic aggregation standpoint, it always seemed to me that serving fiber to the MDU would be the easy part of FTTH. Has that not been the case?
AK: I think there are a significant number of MDUs that remain out there and have yet to have fiber deployed. As you said, MDUs are a great revenue source for MSOs and telcos because you have such a concentrated number of people. But in the past it has actually been a challenge to deploy to them. There are areas such as New York and the Northeast where some telcos have pushed harder, but there are other areas in both the US and outside the US where from what we see there is still a great percentage yet to be covered.
TR: What challenges do network operators face when they deploy fiber infrastructure within an MDU?
AK: Fiber-fed broadband is getting pushed more to the customer and going all the way to the living unit presents its own challenges. As customers request more and faster broadband, telcos and MSOs came to us with the very unique challenge of deploying fiber into MDUs. Within existing buildings, which we call brownstone as opposed to greenfield, it is how to physically deploy the fiber. One way is feeding fiber through the conduit in the walls, but most of the time this is congested — a real mess. Another is through the hallway in a 1×2 latch molding, but that is big and obtrusive, and difficult and slow to deploy. They needed something new.
TR: So how did 3M approach the problem?
AK: We came up with this very small, flexible pathway that contains fiber inside which we call One Pass Fiber Pathway. It is adhesive-backed, so there’s no drilling, dust, or banging in the hallway, and you can paint it so it blends in with the environment. The system rolls out the pathway and the fiber in “one pass,” very quickly along the wall close to the ceiling. And when it sticks, it really sticks. You may recognize 3M as a company that knows how to make things stick. This is a very special adhesive that has been tested on multiple surfaces, and there are only a few surfaces that it won’t work on. A bare brick type of surface that leaves dust on your hand won’t work, for instance.
TR: What other challenges did you have to overcome?
AK: As much as we may think that ceilings are straight, they’re not, so flexibility is important. One Pass is able to follow the contour of the surface of ceilings and blend in. It is also important for the fiber inside to be bend-insensitive so you can go around 90 degree corners as needed.
TR: What other real world hurdles are slowing down FTTH deployments generally?
AK: There is definitely a challenge in terms of skilled workforce that knows how to handle fiber. There’s a lot of copper deployed out there whose use is tapering down, and a lot of that workforce is looking to put their skills to work. But working with fiber is very different and requires a higher skill set. So finding ways to lower the skill needed is an important step.
TR: But the last mile still the most expensive piece of the internet, are we closer to solving it?
AK: Yes, it’s still the most expensive. When you’re running your backbone you can divide that cost among thousands of customers. But as you go all the way to the unit and the customer, that’s installation time per single customer and there is no way around it. The bottom line is that copper is limited in bandwidth and distance, and fiber doesn’t have those limits. Fiber is expensive, but costs are coming down and demand is going up. That’s all playing into this market nicely now.
TR: Thank you for talking with Telecom Ramblings!
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