Analysis: Copper is here to stay

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Analysis: Copper is here to stay

Fibre and wireless have their place, but won't replace copper any time soon.

Traditional copper wires will not be replaced in the foreseeable future, despite the much-hyped implementation of fibre and the progress of wireless technologies such as WiMax and Long Term Evolution.

This was the resounding conclusion of a round table hosted by internet service provider Easynet Connect in London today.

The panel identified increasing demand from home and small business users for a wide range of bandwidth-hungry applications, from social networking and video streaming to hosted applications and video conferencing.

As a result, many have questioned whether the traditional copper wiring used by most broadband and network providers can cope with the strain these applications place on the network.

Although it was generally agreed that optical fibre is being used to form the backbone of many network providers, the panel believes there are still too many hurdles to making fibre the de facto standard from end to end.

The biggest hurdle, according to the panel, concerned the question of where the money is going to come from to replace huge amounts of existing cable.

"Being on the cutting edge of technology and innovation is always exciting, and there is no doubt that a national fibre-based IP infrastructure which provides fibre to the home or business will be a great thing," said Chris Stening, managing director of Easynet Connect.

"For many larger businesses with deep pockets, fibre connections are a reality today. But where does this leave small to medium sized businesses that don't have big IT budgets, but do have a major reliance on their web connection? "

Research by analyst firm Analysys Mason shows that the number of copper-based DSL lines to SMEs currently sits at 1,942,873, while the number of other dedicated fixed broadband lines, including fibre, is 92,913.

Over the next eight years these numbers are expected to rise to 2,014,052 and 137,275 respectively, indicating that, although the implementation of fibre is on the up, copper is not going anywhere soon.

"Calls to send copper to the scrap heap are too hasty and ill-considered. Service providers need to think twice about how to make the most of copper cabling and certainly shouldn't write it off yet," said Stening.

"When given the right treatment, copper can still go a very long way in delivering the fast, reliable and affordable business-class broadband that UK businesses, and particularly SMEs, demand."

Despite its legacy heritage, many of the panellists clearly believe that copper still has a lot of potential, pointing to recent developments able to provide a 40Mbit/s connection to UK SMEs over standard bonding multiple copper pairs to give symmetrical uncontended access.

The topic of wireless connectivity also arose during the discussion, but it was generally considered that the contention between emerging technologies such as WiMax and Long Term Evolution, combined with the general instability of the infrastructure, relegates it to the task of backup services and access for remote workers.

"It's fair to say that copper's reputation has been tarnished somewhat by the various failures and shortcomings of the internet as a whole over the last 15 years," said Stening.

"The idea that these troubles would disappear entirely thanks to a brave new world of fibre, however, does not accurately reflect the whole picture.

"There is no doubt that fibre in the last mile, when it arrives, will be excellent. However, when it comes to the here and now, we won't go wrong if we put our broadband faith in our copper infrastructure until the fibre future becomes a reality."

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