Copper set to get big speed boost

Fibre-starved Canadian businesses may be able to turn to copper as a solution to their bandwidth headaches as soon as 2004, as work proceeds on a standard for Ethernet over copper in the first mile. But with the standard still incomplete, there’s no definite timeline for when Ethernet over copper services might be available from Canadian carriers.

The Ethernet in the First Mile Alliance, a technology advocacy group made up of vendors and service providers, rolled out a variety of first-mile Ethernet displays using both fibre and copper at last month’s Supercomm trade show in Atlanta.

The IEEE’s 802.3ah Ethernet in the first mile task force has already selected G.SHDSL as the delivery method for symmetrical long-reach Ethernet over copper and VDSL as the transport for symmetrical short-reach situations. But the group still has some technical issues to work out, including a standard bonding scheme for multiple trunked lines on the long-reach standard and line coding for the short-reach standard.

Carriers, including Bell Canada, are watching the standards work closely.

“There’s a growth segment, which is LAN access,” said Jean Huppe, director of access network technology development for Bell Canada. “Whether we deliver that over fibre or copper, it’s up to us to use the best means or the cheapest means to deliver the access. Copper is definitely an option we’ll look at seriously.”

Bell Canada isn’t participating in the IEEE standards effort directly, but the company is helping indirectly by co-ordinating line coding efforts on the short-reach standard, Huppe said.

Bell and other carriers already deliver Ethernet services over fibre, Huppe noted.

“But it seems an opportunity could open up with this Ethernet in the first mile work of symmetrical LAN access in the range of 1Mbps to 6Mbps and maybe even 10Mbps over copper,” he said. “That’s something we’re really interested in evaluating.”

Some U.S. carriers, including Qwest Communications, are already offering Ethernet over copper using non-standard gear from vendors such as Actelis Networks. Actelis, which is also following the Ethernet in the first mile standards effort closely, bonds multiple G.SHDSL lines together to create a single high-speed connection. The company says its MetaLight 100E box supports speeds ranging from 3Mbps to 60Mbps over a maximum of 16 copper pairs. Only customer sites located very close to carrier central offices would be able to get the maximum available speeds from the Actelis gear.

While copper lines aren’t as reliable as fibre connections, Actelis says if one copper pair in a trunked connection goes down, the other pairs will continue to function normally, making the overall trunked link relatively reliable. The company uses a proprietary technology called MetaLoop to parse packets, transmit the fragments over multiple DSL lines, and then reassemble them at the destination.

Bell Canada isn’t interested in non-standards-based implementations, Huppe said.

“We would do some proprietary stuff only on a case-by-case basis or if there’s a strong value to it,” he explained. “But in this case in particular we know the standards are coming along fairly rapidly. So my recommendation is not to do any proprietary stuff when the standard is just around the corner.”

Huppe believes there could be some standards-compliant Ethernet over copper gear available towards the end of 2003, but it would likely be 2004 at the earliest, after a vendor selection process and lab trials, before Bell Canada would have any Ethernet over copper services available in the field.

There’s no question some Canadian organizations are having trouble getting high-speed connections.

When Seneca College went searching for a high speed link for its King City campus north of Toronto, carriers told the school it would have to foot the approximately $200,000 bill for a broadband connection up front, because there weren’t any broadband facilities nearby, said Terrance Verity, Seneca’s CIO.

Ultimately, Verity decided to set up a 45Mbps service through a wireless carrier and has been happy with the service.

Copper-based Ethernet services could allow landline carriers to appeal to users like Verity who want broadband connections but can’t afford an expensive fibre buildout.

Ultimately, though, the success of Ethernet over copper will depend on its reliability and its price.

“There’s possibly a need for a service like that,” said Iain Grant, a principal with consultancy the Seaboard Group in Montreal. “But the economics of fibre are getting better and better.”

Grant also noted that broadband wireless services are becoming more prevalent as the technology improves.