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The Bright Future of Copper Connectivity
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 Landlines
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 Network Access
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 Speeds
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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