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Combo PON: The Best of Both Worlds

If one lesson came out of 2020 for internet service providers, it likely had to do with planning for the ever-increasing need for faster, more reliable internet connections at home. 

“Upstream capacity is becoming increasingly important,” Armstrong Director of Network Strategies and Technologies Michael Scardina said on the latest episode of Fiber Broadband Association’s Fiber for Breakfast series. “Granted, COVID-19 did bump some of this forward, the bottom line is this: There are so many devices in the home–IoT, AR, VR and more–so many new bandwidth uses that we simply didn’t have in the past.”

Armstrong is well recognized as America’s 11th largest MSO, serving more than 400,000 homes across Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky and Maryland with a total of 310,000 residential, business and enterprise broadband internet customers.

Armstrong previously utilized Hybrid Fiber Coax with DOCSIS 3.0, but when consumer focus shifted from downstream to upstream, Armstrong realized they had to make a change. While DOCSIS 3.1 is a lower cost in the short term, Scardina explained, it’s a stopgap solution at best. Both mid-term and long-term evaluations show FTTH is the lower cost and longer life solution.

Now in year four of Armstrong’s long-term strategy for meeting customer bandwidth needs, Scardina said Armstrong relies heavily on GPON and XGS-PON deployments with ADTRAN’s TA5000 platform.

For some customers, Armstrong said that GPON fits their needs perfectly, but for the high-bandwidth consuming customers, he noted a need for a smooth shift to accessing those higher speeds.

Traditionally, providers can deploy GPON and XGS-PON networks side-by-side to provide more flexibility to the network that better suits customer demands. However, that approach requires deploying two discrete OLTs.

“It’s mostly a one-and-done approach, but there are still hurdles that providers would need to overcome,” Greg Luhman, Business Development Manager at ADTRAN said on Fiber for Breakfast. “That’s where ADTRAN comes in.”

Armstrong was able to simplify its deployment process of XGS-PON over its existing GPON network through the use of ADTRAN’s Combo PON technology.

“Utilizing Combo PON allows providers to combine these technologies, XGS-PON and GPON, through one hardware footprint–a single OLT port,” Luhman explained. “In a sense, you’re deploying two networks at the same time.”

With that approach of overlaying XGS-PON to the GPON network, Luhman said providers can utilize the network as they see fit, for example keeping residents on GPON and providing XGS-PON as a higher-end option for enterprise customers.

Luhman and Scardina said the benefits speak for themselves:

  • As prices continue to erode, the optics for XGS-PON are well along the cost-value curve as Combo PON delivers on 50% less capex.
  • Looking at usage over the years, Combo PON extends the lifespan of the network by 25 to 80%.
  • Combo PON consumes 66% less energy and takes up 75% less space.
  • A more flexible network means happier customers.

Scardina took a minute to explain that last point: “If you have one customer on a street that is a very high bandwidth consumer, you can easily shift them over to XGS-PON to better fit their broadband needs without causing any disruption to your other customers in the area.”

When asked why the move to XGS-PON is relevant now, Armstrong’s Scardina noted that the upstream capacity we talked about is not going down.

“The time for XGS-PON is now,” Scardina stated. “Find a way to do it that makes financial sense. Spend the capex once and be prepared for when customer demands increase. Be proactive, not reactive.”