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Fiber Optic Communications Global Upside

At the end of 2008, fiber optic communications (FTTx) had firmly established itself as a third viable and scalable global fixed broadband technology alongside DSL and Cable.

Despite economic problems, operators will continue to build new networks, and the number of global FTTx subscriptions will almost triple between now and the end of 2013. But operators face some key challenges.

While FTTx will experience some growth between now and 2013, many consumers are still unwilling to pay an excess for new FTTx services. In addition, most operators do not know if, how and when they will make a return on their investments.

According to Informa Telecoms & Media, there were 49 million global Fiber-to-the-home (FTTH), Fiber-to-the-building (FTTB) and Very high speed DSL (VDSL) subscriptions in 2008. This represents 11.6 percent of all fixed line subscriptions.

While such figures may seem impressive, subscriptions are clustered in only a few countries and fiber is still not a reality for consumers in most countries (including the United States).

The majority of FTTx subscriptions, unsurprisingly, are in Asia Pacific. Pioneering fiber nations Japan and Korea have 13.4 million and 7.0 million FTTx subscriptions respectively.

But, it is China that actually has the greatest number of FTTx subscriptions. Chinese operators have been aggressively upgrading their legacy networks to fiber, and there are now 16.6 million FTTx subscriptions in the country.

By 2013, Informa predicts there will be 145 million subscriptions, just under one in five of all global broadband subscriptions. Much of this growth will be fuelled by Europe and North America. With the exception of a few alternative operators, FTTx growth in Western Europe has been sluggish to date.

But greater regulatory certainty and wider acceptance of the benefits of fiber mean that by 2013, there will be 21.6 million FTTx subscriptions, representing total household penetration of 10.5 percent.

Central and Eastern Europe, not currently thought of as an advanced broadband region, will have a FTTx penetration rate comparable to Western Europe by 2013. It will have 10.6 million subscriptions by 2013, representing 13.2 percent of all subscriptions in the region.

Operators in Central and Eastern Europe are taking advantage of a high proportion of multi dwelling units (MDUs) and a lax regulatory regime to quickly roll out FTTB in the region.

North America may, hopefully, see significant growth. As a result of aggressive roll-outs from both AT&T and Verizon, there will be 24 million FTTx subscriptions in North America in 2013, making up 22 percent of the total market.

Conversely, some of today’s lead fiber markets will see some slowdown in growth towards the end of the forecast period as they approach saturation. Growth of FTTH and FTTB in Japan, for example, will have a compound annual growth rate for fiber of only 7.9 percent over the forecast period.

The big concern for most operators is how they will profit from their rollouts. With a few exceptions, most operators with advanced FTTx rollout plans have not made money from their new networks.

Some will try and charge more for FTTx but others, including alternative operators Fastweb of Italy, France's Free and Sweden's Bredbandsbolaget are charging the same or even less for their premium services as their legacy services.

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