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The Old-School Tech that Could Enable Fiber Optic Broadband Expansion

Here's a look at where the stumbling blocks are, and how a new technology could repurpose some 20th-century tech to help overcome them.

All around the world, private industry and government agencies are racing to expand the availability of high-speed internet access to as many communities as possible. They're doing it because they've recognized that in the digital age, broadband internet access is as valuable to an economy as steam power and electricity were to the economies of the industrial revolution. As we head further into a future that's certain to be filled with Internet of Things (IoT) devices and autonomous vehicles and the like, the need for a robust and reliable internet infrastructure will only become more acute.

That's putting all kinds of pressure on both developed and developing nations to come up with comprehensive strategies to create and deploy next-generation data networks in time to meet the growing demands of their populations as well as the projections regarding how those needs are going to grow. Surprisingly, nations in the industrialized world are having the greatest difficulty rolling out the next-generation fiber optic data networks that will be required to power their economies further into the 21st century. Here's a look at where the stumbling blocks are, and how a new technology could repurpose some 20th-century tech to help overcome them.

Aging Infrastructures

In the developing world, a lack of resources and capital are the biggest impediments to deploying new, high-speed data networks to spur economic growth. The good news is that some well-financed tech companies like Facebook and Google are financing projects aimed at doing just that in several developing nations. Believe it or not, though, fiber network projects in Sub-Saharan Africa and other historically underserved regions may be easier to complete than similar projects in the developed world.

In the US, for example, the aging telecommunications infrastructure that was built in the days of Alexander Graham Bell isn't well suited to 21st century needs, and replacing it is proving no easy task. A complex web of local governments, private businesses, and individual landowners is conspiring to create a landscape that displays outright hostility to large-scale network building. The nations of the EU are faring somewhat better, but still face their fair share of roadblocks to wide-scale network upgrades. There's one developed nation, though, that has boldly moved to secure its digital future (albeit with mixed results thus far)—Australia.

The National Broadband Network

Back in 2009, the Australian government announced their plan to create a next-generation broadband internet network that would serve 93 percent of the nation by 2020. The proposed network, called the National Broadband Network (NBN), had the ambitious goal of providing a fiber-to-premises connection for the majority of buildings throughout the country. Individual customers and businesses would then access the network through privately-provided NBN plans that could be tailored to their specific needs.

As the project got underway, it encountered many of the same issues that have plagued other industrialized nations, slowing progress and making it difficult to deliver on the original fiber-to-premises model. That has forced the NBN to start looking for some creative options to make use of the existing copper infrastructure to extend the NBN's reach without sacrificing the dream of modern, high-speed internet for all. The solution? A next-generation standard for copper line data transmission called G.fast.

The Last Mile

Australia's NBN is aiming to begin offering G.fast services by the end of 2018, which will allow them to focus on streetside fiber deployments rather than costly and sometimes impossible structural fiber retrofits. The idea is simple. By establishing fiber nodes nearby existing copper building wiring, and using the G.fast technology to deliver service to the building (at speeds up to 1Gbps), the NBN might be able to eliminate what has been the costliest barrier to completing their national rollout.

If the initiative is successful, it might become the model that the rest of the developed world will follow to cut down on the cost and complexity of expanding fiber optic networks to existing structures. The importance of G.fast and other last-mile deployment technologies cannot be overstated. Even Google, with near-limitless resources, was forced to rethink their Google Fiber rollout in the United States due to ballooning last-mile costs. A successful, low-cost solution would quite literally change the equation with regard to fiber optic deployments in many developed nations.

A Work in Progress

Only time will tell if the NBN's use of G.fast technology will finally create a workable hybrid solution to the problems developed nations face in their struggle to upgrade their internet infrastructures. If it does, expect to see similar deployments coming to cities near you in the very near future. That would represent a true watershed moment in the history of the global internet and would go a long way towards enabling all of the next-generation technologies that are set to come online in the next few years—and we'd all have some pretty old-school infrastructure to thank for it.

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