I saw a number of things this week that want to point to extending the life of twisted pair copper for telcos. If you are a consumer, should you care about the underlying technology involved? I think there is value in understanding why companies make these decisions from a cost standpoint and then what the differences are in the service that you would receive. One of the bigger ones with copper is that telcos want to use the infrastructure that is in the ground. The problem is that as you want to raise bit rates, you have to have shorter runs of copper. The reason for that is that there is a term called “Signal to Noise Ratio” or SNR. This represents how much random environmental noise is in the transmission path. To think about SNR in a really simple way, think about the quality of FM radio versus AM radio. FM is “better” and has a higher SNR. The signal is clearer. In the world the transmission mediums (from worst to best from an SNR standpoint) are Air, Copper, Coax and Fiber. No matter what you do it will always be easier to transmit high rates over long distances on fiber.
There are a couple of other problems with copper. One is that the copper network is built in 50 wire bundles built in 25 twisted pairs. The pairs are insulated wires, but are braided to make the transmission quality better than two wires laid side by side. The wires don’t just transmit energy through them, but generate electro-magnetic fields that are picked up by nearby wires. Those fields generate noise which lowers the SNR. On top of that any anomalies in the copper like broken insulation can cause additional noise. That means as copper ages it has more and more problems. As a consumer this means your service might get worse over time, even if the telco is not trying to make that happen.
This trend to keep copper has been around since FTTH has been deployed in volume in a few places. The reason is pretty simple. The less that a telco spends to deliver service the sooner it gets a positive Return On Investment. The thing is that this means that upgrades to the next level of performance require new network construction. With FTTH, the fiber that is laid is useful for much higher rate that people deploy today. It is (at worst case) a need to change the equipment on both ends or (in the best case) a provisioning change to allow the user to have access to more bandwidth. At some point the amount of money to extend the life of copper will greatly exceed the cost to lay fiber. Part of the reason is that to get very high rates means that most of the distance to the telco Central Office has to be fiber anyway. If they have to replace copper because it is bad, it will be time to move to fiber. So, slow but sure copper will leave our local outside networks. In building, it will probably be there for a very long time. As copper goes away it will be easier to build, operate and upgrade high speed access networks.
And that is what consumers want!
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