Thursday, September 11, 2008

Upgrading FTTH to 1 Gig in Amsterdam

Hey, they're testing out consumer-level 1gbs to the customer service in Amsterdam's network. (That's 1 gig, ten times the current "fantasy way-cool" standard of 100 megs!) It's not a commercial service yet but because the prices are falling for the electronics the folks who run the project have cobbled together a test to see how it works with off-the-shelf equipage.

Cutting to the chase: It works fine.

One of the best things about installing a fiber to the home infrastructure is that it makes substantial upgrades pretty trivial—the big sunk expense is in putting in the fiber infrastructure; future costs to stay abreast of newly available tech are, by comparison, cheap and can be done on an as-needed basis. Once you have fiber it is easy to stay ahead of the capacity curve and to supply vastly different needs. That is because the carrying capacity of light over fiber is theoretically unlimited; today the practical limits have to do mostly with economics: huge capacity routers and modems are costy and paying the interconnects to other networks can be pricy so providers have to charge more for such services than any but those with special needs want to pay.

But the one thing that is certain about life is that computer electronics prices fall (ok, death and taxes are two more things). And the plummeting price of 1gbs gear is what motivated Herman Wagter (manager of CityNet) in Amsterdam to patch together a working consumer-grade 1 gig connection and try it out in real life. The video I've linked to above is a tech head's presentation—only a someone who delights in the details of hacking together a hookup and stressing it will find the video intrinsically interesting. For the rest of us any fascination lies in 1) the implications of what a residential-grade 1 gig connection might look like, 2) what you can do with it, 3) what the current practical limits are, and 4) what would be necessary for someone to get such a connection where you live.

1) What a residential-grade 1 gig connection might look like: today it involves patching past the modem in the commercially supplied box on the wall of your house and connecting the light signal to a special modem that translates it into 1 gig signal over copper. Basically you'll need a special patch cord and a new modem. (The backbone already runs at higher speeds than your home connection can translate so all you need is new home electronics; the limit on modern fiber networks is mostly at the unit on the wall of your home.)

2) What you can do with it: Well, in the video they run four different HD video steams from their cable service simultaneously and saturate the download capacity of a computer without hitting the limit. Translation: you, your spouse and all the kids can do pretty much anything you can imagine without noticing the slightest slowdown. Even better: this is a symmetrical connection so you can serve up that sort of capacity too. Conceivably, for instance, you could cobble together a server with "football dad" videos from all the city's high school teams and set it up to do Downloadble Video for the mere fans who'd like to see the whole thing in a replay that would allow them to pause the action and argue of whether little Johnny shoulda got credit for that tackle.... Or archive your video of the fishing rodeo. Or Mardi Gras in Acadiana. Or Festivals Acadiens et Créoles or Festival International. You could start a business archiving the monster video footage produced by those new "prosumer" video cameras for locals—wedding photographers on network might really be grateful. Your fantasy here:_________.

3) What the current practical limits are: Putting a gig modem in the stream at your house changes the network choke point from the electronics on the wall of your home to, likely, your home network and devices which might be built for the current (though fading) default of a 100 megs. Going in from that new gig modem connection: A) You'd want the network router to handle a gig. If it was purchased recently it probably does. Check. Longer runs of cabling might need to be changed out for CAT6 cabling. B) Any of the device that you connect to might be limited to a 100 megs or less (often labled: 10/100 ethernet). Again, check the sorts of connections that can really use bandwidth—mainly computers and set-top boxes. All my recent macs come equiped with 1 gig ethernet ports that I've never used to 1/10th capacity. PCs will be more variable. (Your wif? No. It can't transmit enough bandwidth in the best case to use your gig of bandwidth. You do probably you want to upgrade to 802.11n if speed is important to you but even then any wireless connection will be a choke point. To take full advantage you'll want a wired connection to bandwidth-hungry devices. If you live on wifi and are a true nut consider running two 802.11n connections on different bandwidths and tuning alternate devices to one or the other. Finally: your devices' internal electronics will matter too. Even if you have a gig ethernet port you may well find that your hard drive's controller can only handle 500 megs as it tries to write down that faster-than-real-time download from Netflix or iTunes...(poor, pitiful, you--this is the problem the guys in Amsterdam ran into. So sad.)

4) What would be necessary for someone to get such a connection where you live: Your first trick is to get hooked up to a fiber network (not one of those faux things from your incumbents). It would help to get it from a municipal or other small, local provider. The big guys are too focused on ringing the last dollar out of short-term investments. (Verizon is notoriously not offering to sell you nearly the capacity they have on their fiber network.) So move to Amsterdam. Or Lafayette.... Take Lafayette as a possilble example: You'd probably need to start by buying into a business contract and paying the premium involved. The 1 gig option is unlikely to be a standard one, at least not at first, so you'd have to sit down with LUS and hammer out a cost and agree on conditions. I suspect they'd be eager to be able to say that they'd sold such a residential connection, espeically if you are willing to pay for it. Even utility guys value bragging rights. They'd come to your house and either patch in a new modem in your box or, more likely, patch past it with a fiber-optic cable and connect it to a new gig modem in the house similar to the less powerful one you might get from the cable or phone guys. As far as you, the customer, was concerned that'd probably be it. On LUS' side they'd probably want to patch past the PON splitter nearest your house so that your anticipated big bandwidth usage wouldn't effect the other folks with whom you are currently sharing the backbone capacity. LUS assures us that they'll install plenty of "excess" fiber all along their system to enable just such contingencies.

The take home from this post? — Getting a gig connection is no longer just a fuzzy fantasy. It's easy to see how, in at least a few real-world situations, Joe Normal could snag a gigabit connection.

Brave New World, no?

UPDATE: As I went to post this article I recalled a remark I'd read on the Cook list about Lund, Sweden...when I went there I found that on that muni network you can TODAY buy a gig connection if you want. One provider, Adamo, sells it for 1495 Kr or about $221.37US. My. You can get the first month for half price to see if you like it. (See for yourself. I had to use Google translate but the meaning isn't ambiguous.)

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