The Bright Future of Copper
Once thought of as yesterday's
technology, copper landlines are getting speed enhancements to
improve their cost advantages.
By: John Shepler
Those who predict the future of technology
long ago figured that the Earth would have all but reclaimed
the copper metal in telecom cabling by now. Copper wiring is
so positively 19th century, so Alexander Graham Bell, so Samuel
F.B. Morse. Why, nobody will still be using copper wire to transport
the high technology signaling of the 21st century. Yet, it's
still here and still the subject of intense research. Why is
that? Are telecommunication companies allergic to glass fibers,
or just short-sighted?
The Secret Cost Advantage of Copper
Actually the death of copper wiring for both in-plant networking
and metro access was very prematurely announced. It's here and
it's staying for a very good reason: cost. Nowhere is this more
true than in what's called "first mile" access. While
the cost to trench or pull fiber optic cabling to a building
can run into the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, using
copper bundles is almost a freebie.
Why? Because it's already there. Messrs.
Morse and Bell kept us hopping to wire the world over the last
150 years. Wire it, we did. We mined, refined and reburied mountains
worth of copper metal to an extent that nearly every structure
has at least a couple pairs of telephone wire. Clever technology
has let us use these installed pairs to carry both analog voice
conversations and high speed digital network data.
Consider farms, ranches, cellular towers
and industries in rural areas. Who is going to pony up the capital
to trench fiber optic cables dozens of miles in the middle of
nowhere? You need a good size business with a critical demand
for fiber optic bandwidths to justify the cost. On the other
hand, if all you really need is low to medium Mbps bandwidth
for point to point or dedicated Internet access, chances are
that the first mile or first ten miles of access are already
in place. It's just a matter of fairly routine engineering to
re-purpose those copper pairs from analog to high speed digital.
T1 Lines as Almost Universally Available
The most popular commercial digital telecom service readily available
today is T1 line service. It offers 1.5 Mbps both upload and
download. This digital bandwidth can be used to carry up to 24
separate telephone lines or can be configured as a data pipe.
It's a private connection between facilities. Alternatively,
it can provide broadband Internet service for up to 25 users.
What if 1.5 Mbps isn't enough bandwidth? Multiple T1 lines can
be bonded together to act like a single larger bandwidth service
in multiples of 1.5 Mbps. Each line service requires 2 copper
pair, so if you have enough pairs bundled to your location you
can often get 3, 4.5, 6, 7.5 or 9 Mbps. Higher rates are also
possible if copper is readily available and new fiber installation
is too onerous or expensive.
Technology Improvements to Copper Transmission
So have we tapped out copper's capability? Not really. The IEEE
(Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) established
a working group that's establishing new standards for using copper
as a first mile access technology for Ethernet metro and wide
area networks. The IEEE 802.3ah is embracing both fiber and copper
in the physical layer.
There are two new standards for increasing
the speed of copper transmissions. 2BASE-TL offers a minimum
of 2 Mbps over distance of up to 9,000 ft with a nominal speed
of 5.7 Mbps. Up to 8 pairs can be readily bonded to deliver similar
bandwidth to a T3 line, which runs at 45 Mbps. The other standard
is 10-PASS-TS. This is a shorter range technology that delivers
a minimum of 10 Mbps up to 2,460 ft. 10-PASS-TS also supports
pair bonding to increase bandwidth. Hatteras Networks and Actelis
are two major suppliers of equipment to meet these new standards.
As Carrier Ethernet gains strength for
wide area networking, the EFM or Ethernet in the First Mile standards
from the IEEE seem like a good match for access to the metro
and long haul networks. With only an estimated 11% of buildings
currently wired for fiber optic access, it's likely that improved
modulation techniques will extend the life of already in place
copper cabling for years, if not decades to come.
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