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“Photonics is the only technology that can take advantage of high-speed fiber internet infrastructure.”

Sep 28, 2016 1:32:09 PM. By: High Tech Campus

Ronan Kelly is the president of the Fiber To The Home (FTTH) Council Europe. His mission is to connect all of Europe to high-speed optical fiber cables, leading us towards ‘Gigabyte society’. And for that, he says, photonics is indispensable.


During the Integrated Photonics Conference at the High Tech Campus Eindhoven on September 27th Ronan Kelly connected the dots between the innovation in photonics and the adoption of fiber based broadband services. We asked the Irishman about his love of all things fiber.

Why is fiber so important?
“The world is transitioning into the so-called fifth generation of access, with innovations on all layers of access technology. The most common one we’ve all heard about is 5G, but we’ll also see the arrival of new PON standards and fibre extension technologies like G.fast. Where existing access technologies are operating with a capacity between 1 MB and 2,5 GB per second in the downstream direction, these new technologies have a capacity of 10 GB/s, both downstream and upstream. Fiber is the only medium that will allow that kind of internet speed. So you could argue that fiber is essential to enable the future Gigabyte society.”

What is the role of photonics in this transition?
“Fiber and photonics are inextricably linked. You can compare it with a railway system, where fiber represents the tracks and photonics is the high-speed train that runs on it. Apart from photonics, there’s not really anything else that can take advantage of that high-speed fiber infrastructure. And photonics is the cost driver. The lower the cost of the photonics equipment, the lower the cost to build a 5G network and the quicker it can be built. The beauty is that for making these new speeds available, you only have to install photonics on either end of the path of optical infrastructure. You don't have to rip out the old fiber and replace it with the new.”

How much of the Internet is running an optical fiber right now?
“Fundamentally, the entire backbone of the Internet, all the core networks and metropolitan distribution networks, is 100% fiber today. But when it comes to the end users of the Internet, it’s a different story. Fiber infrastructure within Europe today passes about 60 million households, which means they are economically viable to connect to fiber through their service operator. Of these, about 18 million are actually connected. The US has about 13 million connections, but their growth rate is increasing. Companies like Google are investing heavily there, which is catalyzing further US investments in fibre by other operators.”

What are the main advantages of fiber, apart from faster internet speeds?
“Reliability is one of the key things. Copper cables corrode overtime, which leads to poor performance, but fiber does not. Copper technologies can also suffer from latency issues [delays in data communication], whereas fiber literally moves at the speed of light. One of the key reasons why we are trying to encourage governments and telecom operators to invest in fiber infrastructure is because it is future proof. We’re forecasting the rise of autonomous vehicles that will communicate with each other and with the cloud, predominantly over short range wireless links, which are backhauled over fibre. In that scenario the last thing you want is a slow performing network. Everything has to be as close and real-time as possible. The same goes for new technologies like virtual reality, which induces motion sickness if the interaction is not felt at the real-world speed. Not to mention the side effects of remote surgeries, should the network impede the surgeon. So there the latency has to be ultra short. For those services to really take off you are dependent on either full fiber-to-the-home or fiber very close to the home.”
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What is your goal with the FTTH council?
“We would like to get one hundred percent fiber connectivity. Of course that's going to take time. But countries like Spain and France are already investing heavily in fiber to the home. France is targeting to connect about two million homes per year to fiber. Yet even at that rate it will take 12 years to get full ubiquity. A lot depends on the level of government support. Unfortunately many governments cannot visualize the applications fiber is going to enable, so they think there's no justification in making the investment. But it's just like investing in an anti-smoking campaign. You don't realize the benefits tomorrow, but you know that if you don’t invest, you’re likely to face serious health issues ten years down the line that will place massive strains on future health care resources. The savings that investing in fiber will bring to the taxpayer into future are huge.”

How is The Netherlands doing in this respect?
“You are doing quite well. One of the challenges that you have here, which Spain and France did not have, is that for competing technologies like twisted pair copper and coax cables you already have quite high capacities. When you can deliver 100 MB services to subscribers over copper, many customers are not going to hit the limit of that in the next couple of years. So a lot of people think that what they have is good enough. That is why government needs to get behind fiber and promote the adoption. We cannot depend on end users to imagine the applications they will use in five to ten years time.”

Do you actually have a fiber connection in your home?
“Unfortunately not. I'm on cable. To be fair, I do get 300 MB capacity, so I get a taste of what could be possible. But of course I would much prefer to be on fiber.”
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