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Can Telcos Add More Last-Mile Bandwidth?

This post at GigaOm about telcos continuing to lose landlines to alternatives has me thinking. Specifically the part where Om says:

A quick fix to this would actually be better offerings – higher downstream and better upstream speeds to counter the cable operators who are charging more for their beefier offerings.

 

I don’t think it’s technically feasible for the telcos to offer much more bandwidth than they currently are now.

Let’s dive into this technically. At optimal conditions, ADSL, as it is currently deployed through much of the US, maxes out at 8mb downstream and 1mb upstream. This is comparable to what I currently get through my local cable company for $55 a month, though they actually give 8/1.5). In order to actually get 8/1 from DSL:

 

  • You’ve got to be 9000 wire feet from the DSLAM
  • The DSLAM has to be fiber-fed, i.e. sufficient bandwidth must exist to the DSLAM

 

My DSL circuit from Qwest is 1.5/1. From what I understand from talking to the local installers, it’s not because of distance–my DSLAM is maybe a half-mile driving distance from my house–but it’s because the DSLAM my line is tied into is fed by multiple-T1 circuits (each one being 1.5/1.5). This puts a limit on the amount of available bandwidth for all subscribers that use that DSLAM.

 

Now this does raise some questions. My DSLAM was put in within the past 2 years. You can’t tell me Qwest didn’t forsee that people would want more than the piddly 1.5 mb they are able to offer now back when this DSLAM was on the drawing board. Why didn’t they do it right the first time and run fiber to the DSLAM? Maybe because it was cheaper to use what they already had.

 

The cable guys, by nature of the application the wires were originally laid for, namely broadcast television, have a clear leg-up on the phone company. The wires themselves have a ton more available bandwidth. Also, given the way their network is laid out, adding more end-user bandwidth is relatively straightforward. Also, the DOCSIS 1.x standard, which is relatively old, but widely deployed, has more upper-limit headroom than ADSL (even the ADSL2+ specs). DOCSIS 3.x promises over 100mb upstream and downstream.

 

The conventional telcos went with a technology that, while at the time seemed like the right choice, ended up limiting their ability to cost-effectively grow their last-mile bandwidth. The only way out, short of any major technological advances in DSL technology, is laying fiber. While all the large telcos are doing it, it’s a long, slow process.

While the telcos can’t cost-effectively roll out more bandwidth, the one thing they can do is compete on price. The telcos could offer their top-level DSL speeds as, say, a $10/mo add on to a fully-featured phone line. Or hell, include it. Oh, and by the way, include unlimited long distance as well. Get all that to a $50 -$60 price point and now you’ve got something.

 


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