It can be argued that the telecommunications market is undergoing what may be the single largest transformations in its history as it migrates away from copper-based services towards fibre-based solutions. The debate surrounding the shift often focusses on the immediately practical points of the technology choices and the mechanics of who pays for it and how. In this post I try to consider the movements in the market as a whole that are under-way and how these might best be supported – a market view of fibre evolution.

I’ve taken as a starting point a model borrowed from work done by Evans and Wurster in their excellent book, “Blown to Bits”, looking into some of the reasons the bubble burst and some of the survival strategies that helped others prosper. While I’m not suggesting we’re approaching a similarly apocalyptic moment, their view of how organisations align to form a market is pertinent.

They suggest that all organisations within properly functioning markets have to consider a trade-off between what they call “reach” and “richness” – market reach contrasted against the ability to customise and tailor a service. All businesses sit somewhere along that line with perhaps McDonald’s at one end with a global reach but a low ability to offer you anything other than what’s on their globally fixed menu, and the Roux family restaurants at the other end who find it impossible to become a global restaurant empire but they can offer precisely what their customers want.

Applying this model to today’s telecoms market is revealing – the curve is disjointed, with commodity but high-reach broadband offerings at one end, and high-value corporate products at the other with few if any services completing the curve.

Broadband Reach-Richness Curve

Reach-richness curve of the traditional telecoms market


At the consumer end exists ADSL products where differentiation is limited to little more than brand and contention, while at the other end are wholesale Ethernet products attached to MPLS clouds and the like – and there is almost nothing in between.

It can be reasonably argued that this is a natural result of the necessary scale of a utility infrastructure needing to consider the best solutions for the widest audience and can’t reasonably consider a market that best services each customer – this can be done but at a price and only to a select sub-market.

In many respects, therefore, we should not consider telecommunications as a single market but a group of sub-markets which are quite distinct and typically with their own specialist providers, and to understand the whole market stresses, therefore, it’s important to understand how each of these sub-markets are reacting to the move towards fibre-based services.

An important aside we’ll return to was the emergence of first generation community-led broadband schemes. These were typically wireless-based services built and operated by communities in areas where early ADSL services were unlikely to appear from the main commercial operators in the short to medium term. The motivation of these projects was typically not to become life-long network operators, although there are exceptions to this, but to prove demand where it was doubted and to ensure they weren’t disadvantaged in the medium term as neighbouring communities started to exploit ADSL services.

These schemes delivered low reach but typically developed much greater “richness” – their engagement within their communities and the support work in helping neighbours get on-line ensured higher levels of take-up, proving the demand that others doubted. But, I’d argue, few of these initiatives ever really formed part of what we typically consider the telecommunications market.

That in no way diminishes the value and importance of these schemes, quite the reverse. These schemes found ways to deliver services to places where it was thought impossible and delivered demand where it was thought not to exist, and we live with they legacy of these pioneers still today.

In summary, a key impact of first generation community-led schemes was that they provided a strong impulse for change in the traditional telecommunications market but they did this without themselves becoming a part of it.

The first moves in the migration to next generation fibre-based services are now well under-way but it’s clear that different markets have taken quite markedly different paths ranging from the highly centralised Australian National Broadband Plan to some European countries highly decentralised metro-network programmes.

It is perhaps natural to want to consider which of these approaches is “right” and which are “wrong” but rarely can migrations as significant as this be distilled down to a simple right and wrong. In helping to understand the shifts that are under-way  and therefore how these different strategies may help or potentially hinder the migration, the reach-richness model provides some interesting insights.

NGA Reach-Richness Curve

Reach-richness curve of the emerging telecoms market


The emergence of VDSL services is perhaps the simplest to plot on the curve – it is a perfectly natural evolution from first generation ADSL services by increasing the richness of the offerings through significant speed increases but with some reduction in market reach – while all premises are connected to an exchange not all cabinets are suitably located and not all premises are connected cabinets reducing the reach of VDSL.

It is the development of more decentralised approaches which require a little more consideration before judging whether they are an evolution of the first generation community-led schemes or if they are a shift in the main telecommunications market – and there will be a mix where some schemes clearly want to promote their credentials as part of a different market more associated with the first generation communities. However, the impact this group is likely to have may turn out to be similar to the first generation – they provide a powerful impulse for operations on the curve, encouraging developments more widely than might otherwise happen but they are less likely to evolve mechanisms that deliver scale themselves.

In contrast, it is those initiatives that are attempting to align themselves with the core market that are more likely to have a wider impact on the overall shift in the market as this is where the models can develop scale and be more readily replicated. Here, there appears to be a natural evolution of approach that began in campus networks and has grown in concept into the Metro-nets we see across Europe and the US, and are emerging in the UK. It could be argued that this is perhaps a reason these initiatives have tended to favour Ethernet, the natural choice of campus networks; as  much a cultural as technical or commercial decision, just as operators at the other end of the curve tend to favour VDSL and PON.

The natural scale and the focus on a “rich” solution tailored to both the customer and the geography allows operators at this end of the curve to find viable solutions in harder to reach niches than operators arriving from the other end of the curve. An operator in this space is unlikely to compete on a national scale but international examples can be found where their scale is significant or where the market sub-sector combined is developing significant scale. For example, almost a quarter of the US fibre market is held by smaller alternative providers where the average operator has fewer than 10,000 subscribers.

A simplistic conclusion, therefore, might be that the Metro-Ethernet Forum and their supporters are preparing for a face off over the middle ground with the Broadband Forum and their members but the work of the UK’s NICC has demonstrated that this is far from the truth, even if it makes less exciting headlines. The NICC’s work on Active Line Access (ALA) has seamlessly codified the co-existence of Ethernet, VDSL and PON networks within a single market, allowing the increasing reach of the evolved campus companies while simultaneously supporting increased richness in the mass-market offerings.

And these shifts in market behaviours are not one-sided. In developing their pioneering service, OnsNet in The Netherlands developed what they call their 7-pillars model which encapsulates the different characteristics they consider a successful fibre-based network will need to embody. While their approach and intent is very clearly from the campus end of the curve, and has served them and their followers very well, it would also be fair to say that some of their teaching has been taken on by Reggefiber, a company that is industrialising the Metronet approach in The Netherlands and perhaps more aligned with the Reach end of the curve.

While I’m sure Kees Rovers, the founder of OnsNet, would say they are not applying their thinking in the round, it would be fair to say that Reggefiber would not be able make a success of what is essentially a traditional utility model typified by homogeneity without borrowing some of the OnsNet philosophy around engagement and communications.

It is now possible to see how the bifurcated curve might edge towards becoming a full market spectrum. Certainly the movement from both directions along the curve is undeniable, and there are growing signs that there is learning from both movements’ approaches, so the questions that remain focus on whether the market will join in the middle or at least complete enough of the curve to ensure solutions are sufficiently widely available to support a future economy.

  1. Ian Grant says:

    Interesting. What role do you think the content distribution network operators are playing, and where do think the OTT players (Google, Facebook, BSkyB, Virgin Media) fit now and in future?

    • Adrian Wooster says:

      That’s another article in itself. The short version is that I suspect one of the shifts that will come as Software Defined Network features become mainstream, and ALA is a step in this direction, is that content providers will be able to deliver richer services to those with more flexible and richer infrastructure offerings.

      We may be beginning to see the early preparation for this as existing ISPs move further into content delivery (and control) as content organisations begin to explore infrastructure (Kansas, etc).

      For this to happen its likely to require some significant shifts in the structure of markets as they get closer – content and infrastructure.

      Exciting times!

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