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FTTH vs DOCSIS: Gigabit race for the best Customer Experience

Published on August 11, 2020

This article belongs to a monographic series about the evolution of telecommunication technologies, FTTH and Cable (DOCSIS), to better meet user’s residential bandwidth requirements, customers’ needs and how to address them to provide the best Quality of Experience. 

Take a look to the second article of the series: FTTH vs DOCSIS (II): The future of Gigabit capable technologies 

Article written in collaboration with Diego Limones, Business Analytics & Consulting at MedUX. 

As highlighted in our series of articles about the impact of the COVID-19 mobility restrictions on the telecommunications industry (IT, ES, DE and the UK), a new global scenario is arising with new consumption and usage patterns, since more people started to learn and work for home, and enjoy online entertainment activities. 

Among other end-user related challenges, maintaining and optimizing the quality of services and guaranteeing the availability and security of networks, while allowing concurrent usage of applications, have been some of the most expected service provider actions by their customers and communities (see recent Ericsson’s Mobility Report for further details). Wired options[1], such as G.Fast or VDSL2 supervectoring 35b, could have the necessary horsepower to postpone gigabit capable investments among some telecom operators. However, Gigabit services continue to drive massive future-proof network deployments worldwide to keep up with growing demand for increasing bandwidths. Lately more operators migrate towards FTTH, while focusing on copper switch off. Moreover, some FTTH providers are eyeing a path to 10 Gbps via 10G PON (e.g. XGS-PON or NG-PON2), whereas cable operators are evaluating options for upgrading their existing networks (DOCSIS 3.1 - 4.0). 

The large deployment of broadband – with more than one billion global fixed broadband subscribers, according to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU)- has contributed to change the way we use and understand the Internet. For instance, the demand for lower latency and ultra-fast broadband is becoming more and more essential to meet the residential users’ demands for content and entertainment. Indeed, some operators have recognized that online TV services and IPTV has also become a driver for gigabit services for some consumers. 

Some examples of applications which might benefit from higher bandwidth, particularly if used simultaneously within a household, include high definition video streaming, new demanding gaming options and cloud usage. Future developments in video quality including 8K TV, and applications relying on alternative or virtual reality are also likely to require higher bandwidths and/or better-quality connections (See our post about How fast is enough to enjoy our #StayAtHome?). 

Since the telecoms sector is an enabler for the entire digital economy and society, Europe is pushing hard for the widespread of Gigabit-capable broadband to provide the best customer experience possible.

Erzsébet Fitori, director general of the FTTH Council Europe, stated recently that “Ubiquitous and reliable digital infrastructure has never played such a crucial role as today connecting families, enabling business activities and working from home. Very high capacity connectivity is not only mission-critical in times of crisis, but will also be fundamental for economic recovery and the transition towards a sustainable, green EU economy. Competitive investments in very high capacity networks should therefore remain a high political priority.” 

The deployment of the 5G networks may accelerate the need of upgrading current fixed technologies and the take-up of very high capacity networks, particularly considering the potential of indirect substitution. However, 5G will have some challenges as it will not be able typically to deliver very high symmetric bandwidths reliably indoors. Nowadays, there are several wired technologies that allow us to currently have ultra-fast and very high-speed Internet access at residential premises, with reliable speeds and much higher than 300 Mbps.

FTTH speeding up in Europe

The total number of homes passed with Fibre to the Home (FTTH) and Fibre to the Building (FTTB) in Europe (the EU39 ) reached nearly 172 million homes passed compared to 160 million in 2018. Massive “Fiberization” is not anymore a question of if, but when. 

Commenting on the report, Ronan Kelly, President of the FTTH Council said: “Full fibre is the way forward and the results of (this report) provide compelling evidence of this. Fibre expansion is booming in many countries and today more consumers are aware of the benefits of fibre.” 

FTTH/B figures as of September 2019. Source: FTTH Council Europe

 New Fibre Market Panorama 2020 report presented by FTTH Council Europe revealed that the main movers regarding FTTH/B homes passed in absolute terms are France (+3,5 M), Italy (+1,9 M) and Spain (+1,5 M). In relative terms, the five fastest growing markets in Europe considering year on year rates are Belgium (+307%), Ireland (+70.4%), Switzerland (+69.1%), United Kingdom (+50.8%) and Germany (33.5%). 

The report also said that FTTH architecture predominated over FTTB (60 percent versus 40 percent) and alternative operators were still constituting the largest part of FTTH/FTTB players, with a contribution of about 56 percent of the total fibre expansion.

On the FTTH/B Penetration Ranking, Iceland topped the European FTTH penetration ranking with a 65.9 per cent, penetration rate, dethroning Latvia, which landed fifth, at 53.9 per cent. Belarus was in second place with a 62.8 per cent rate, while Sweden claimed third with 56.8 per cent, dropping Spain into fourth place with 54.3 per cent. 

FTTH/B Ranking- European Ranking| Source: FTTH Council Europe

The report stated on this regard that, “some major European countries are lagging behind (except. Spain and Portugal) due to a predominance of copper based technologies (VDSL, G.Fast) and/or cable networks (DOCSIS 3.0 / 3.1)”. It also noted that incumbents in some countries have started to modify their strategy in order to deploy FTTH solutions, instead of continuing the development of legacy copper-based or cable-based networks. 

Given the stress that networks have been suffering lately because of the coronavirus crisis and the worldwide lockdown at home, telecommunications and specifically fibre deployments have become trending topic. Fibre networks are a scalable, secure, and cost-effective option to transmit large volumes of data and serve the interests of the most demanding consumers. 

As we can see in the figure below, coverage and take-up of FTTH has increased in Europe since 2009. “This demonstrates robust demand as the communications needs of consumers and businesses develop in the modern digital economy”, as stated in Analysys Mason’s report.   

Coverage and take-up in Europe, 2009–2019 | Source: Analysys Mason, 2020

Nowadays, optical fibre networks are called by its acronym FTTx. As a quick reminder, we find several types: FTTH (Fibre-to-the-home), FTTB (Fibre-to-the-building), FTTN (Fibre-to-the-node) or FTTC (Fibre-to-the-cabinet). The difference is mainly in the distance between the optical fibre and the end user. 

Figure illustrating FTTx architectures | Source: CNMC

It should be noted that fibre technologies have continuously evolved in the latest years with a predominance of FTTH architecture over FTTB (60% over 40%, respectively), as it has been revealed through the New Market Panorama and Forecast data at the FTTH Conference 2019. 

FTTH goes directly to the end user premise (e.g. living room) and provides a faster and more reliable Internet connection. It has a very high data transmission capacity, and it allows to display links of many kilometers with little signal loss. Since fibre networks work with THz frequencies, the bit rates that can be achieved are extremely high. 

FTTH networks also offers important advantages considering the advances in wireless technologies. The lower latencies that FTTH can provide, make it suitable to be used alongside WiFi 6. Although FTTH networks guarantee high security in communications, since, theoretically, transmissions cannot be intercepted, it is not the only technology that can provide fast and secure communications. 

At MedUX we measure the FTTH performance and quality of experience of the following operators in Europe, and soon Romania, Netherlands, Hungary and Czech Republic will be covered:

 In the meantime, other gigabit capable technologies coexist with FTTH, using different physical transmission medium, such as Cable technologies.

DOCSIS 3.1: cable technology has fuel in the tank

It has been almost a century since the first coaxial cables were developed. Before the discovery of the fibre, coaxial cable was widely used to transmit high data rates. Since then, several technologies have been deployed over coaxial cables. 

One of the latest is HFC, known as Hybrid Fibre Coaxial, which combine cooper and optical fibre cables. That is, this technology includes optical fibre in the core network and coaxial cable in the distribution to reach the end-users homes. Since fibre can transmit over a hundred miles without a repeater, the future trend over HFC is to deploy more F (fibre) and less C (coaxial cable) to reduce and avoid congestion in the main nodes and increase the resilience of the network. 

Broadband coverage by cable technology, mainly DOCSIS 3.0, has recently showed a slower . This report states that “The limited growth of DOCSIS 3.0 can be attributed to the lack of deployment of new cable networks, in addition to the fact that 99% of cable networks had already been upgraded to DOCSIS 3.0 by mid-2017.”

The most widely used standard in coaxial cable networks is DOCSIS (Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification), in particular DOCSIS 3.0. Initially, it was developed just to deliver content to the end user. Hence, in the last few years when new Internet usage patterns appeared, such as video streaming or gaming, increasing the current upstream were required to maintain the quality requirements. 

Overall, DOCSIS technology is sufficiently high performing to meet the most demanding users’ requirements, although certain rates and parameters are not comparable to FTTH networks. 

DOCSIS 3.0 technology already allowed to offer 1-Gig or nearly 1-Gig speeds thanks to the introduction to the channel bonding, but higher performance levels over FTTx pushed European cable operators to adopt the latest spec leading to the DOCSIS 3.1, which can theoretically support downstream speeds as high as 10 Gbit/s and upstream speeds of at least 1 Gbit/s. 

DOCSIS 3.1 or EURODOCSIS (the European adaptation) is the latest official version. Thanks to the implementation of the multiplexing technique OFDM and the reduction of channels bandwidth, it can reach speeds of up to 10 Gbps in the download stream and 1 Gbps in the upload stream. It is presented as the definitive coaxial cable solution to achieve a more stable, fast and efficient Internet. 

Digital Economy and Society Index Report on Broadband Connectivity 2020 reveals that DOCSIS 3.0 reached 46% of European households. 29% of NGA subscriptions are DOCSIS 3.0 and DOCSIS 3.1 cable, a relatively high figure given that cable broadband in total represents only 19% of all EU fixed broadband subscriptions. Cable has a particularly high market share in Belgium, Hungary, Malta and the Netherlands. 

Fixed broadband subscriptions – technology market shares in the EU (% of subscriptions), July 2019 |Source: Communications Committee (COCOM)- DESI

In Europe, DOCSIS 3.1 upgrades have been happening since the second quarter of 2018. By then, Vodafone Spain completed the DOCSIS 3.1 upgrade of its nation-wide network covering 7.9 million coaxial lines and provide up to 1 Gbps access broadband and 4K video services on the live network. Furthermore, according to Omdia's latest cable broadband access equipment forecast, it will continue in the post-COVID-19 era.

Indeed, nowadays further steps ahead are underway and Vodafone Deutschland is preparing the introduction of the new cable standard DOCSIS 4.0 and intends to test the system in a trial next year, provided that the first hardware prototypes are available, according to recent statements from Peter Breitwieser, head of product management cable fixed at Vodafone Deutschland. Depending on the upgrade stage and network topology, DOCSIS 4.0 will allow a downstream data rate of up to 10Gbps and an upstream data rate of up to 6Gbps. With the currently used DOCSIS 3.1, Vodafone Deutschland offers up to 1Gbps downstream and up to 50Mbps upstream in the existing frequency spectrum up to 862 MHz. 

The DOCSIS 4.0 specifications have just come up. Some countries, as the EEUU, where the cable deployment is much wider than fibre is starting the adaptation to these specifications leading the technological wave over cable. 

As the cable broadband access equipment market is regaining strength thanks to the last technological releases, cable operators will resume efforts to transform existing networks to remain competitive against rival FTTH offerings and keep up with customer bandwidth demands. According to OMDIA, it will rebound, eventually, thanks to next-gen access technologies, to keep up with customer bandwidth demands. 

At MedUX we measure the HFC performance and quality of experience of the following operators in Europe, and soon Romania, Netherlands, Hungary and Czech Republic will be covered:  

Stay tuned to the next posts and insights of this monographic series about the evolution of telecommunication technologies, FTTH and Cable (DOCSIS), to better meet user’s residential bandwidth requirements, customers’ needs and how to address them to provide the best Quality of Experience.   


[1] 5G FWA intentionally left aside. 

[2] The EU 39 includes Andorra, Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Macedonia, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine and United Kingdom

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