AT&T says reducing labor savings is a key goal in advancing FTTP footprint further

LOS ANGELES—As AT&T looks to meet its ambitious goal to pass 12.9 million homes with fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP)—a pursuit that could reach beyond that number—the service provider is set on improving its network installation processes.

Kent McCammon, lead member of technical staff at AT&T Labs, told attendees during the Lessons Learned from Global PON Deployment panel at this week’s OFC show that the biggest hurdle in any FTTP build is lighting up new customers.

“One of, if not the major top issues, to prevent FTTP from being deployed in our region is cost of deployment,” McCammon said.

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As AT&T has been rolling out FTTP services, the service provider would have one technician to install the necessary equipment (i.e. set top boxes and gateways) inside the home and another to install the fiber drop.

But the service provider decided to streamline the installation process by having one technician handle both the inside and outdoor processes.

“Originally we had a technician who placed the fiber drop and ONT on the side of the home and then they turned it over a technician inside the house that get the customer going with their services,” McCammon said. “The desire was to have what was formerly called the inside technicians perform the fiber drop, but in order to do that we had to train technicians who were not using to dealing with fiber.”

Streamlining installations

Since the inside technicians had to be trained on how to install fiber drops, AT&T had to come up with an easier method.

The service provider decided to use field installed mechanical connections. AT&T is also using pre-connectorized fiber drops in some of its FTTP footprint.

“We ran a trial and tested the performance of the installers in Austin, Texas, and we had pretty good results,” McCammon said.

However, McCammon added that while mechanical connections accelerate installation timelines, technicians can’t test the performance of the fiber coming into the home.

“When the technicians did a mechanical connection, you don’t have the visibility like you do with a fusion splicer where you can actually see it’s a good connection,” McCammon said. “If the ONT’s green light turned on and they left whether it was well done or not.”

During a recent analysis exercise of its FTTP markets, AT&T saw different optical power levels on some of the fiber connections it tested inside certain homes.

“In our recent analysis we did a few weeks ago, we’re seeing lines with variable optical power,” McCammon said. “It’s 5% of the areas where we have installed fiber so 95% of the cases have a good connection.”

When AT&T replaced the connector inside one of its customer’s home, it saw an improvement in the power level.

“We wanted to do preventative care on this customer,” McCammon said. “When we replaced the device, the power jumped up 16db and then it stabilized.”

McCammon added that “when we see this behavior we’re pretty sure it’s a bad connector.”

Eying next-gen PON, analytics

In the near-term, the focus for AT&T will be to equip its network technician workforce with easy to install connectors and related equipment. These elements will enable AT&T to accelerate FTTP deployments and ensuring customer uptime.

“Right now we’re serving the industry with mechanical connectors that are simple to install,” McCammon said. “Imagine an on-site installer tech who does not have a lot of experience, they need to be trained and do a good job every time.”

AT&T is also looking into seeing how an optical network terminal (ONT) could provide optical time-domain reflectometer (OTDR) functionality.

“There are some investigations we have seen to have the ONT do some OTDR functionality,” McCammon said. “Perhaps some of this technology could be used to track and identify if there’s an air gap that’s forming or a high reflection point that shows a customer may be having a service issue after the initial installation.”

At the same time like its ILEC brother Verizon, who also spoke on the panel, AT&T is looking at creating a path beyond GPON.

Given its large installed base of GPON, AT&T is also looking at how to bridge the gap to migrate to next-gen PON technologies like XGS-PON and NG-PON2.

“The two systems that can overlap GPON are XGS-PON and NG-PON2 and the IEEE is working on a coexistence plan,” McCammon said.

Service providers also have the option to using WDM filters or new splitters and fiber where needed as they migrate to next-gen PON technologies.

“Our viewpoint is both methods of using WDM and using fresh fiber splitters means it’s nice that operators have a choice to deal with all kinds of deployment legacies we find in the network,” McCammon said.

Specifically, AT&T is looking at the value of using symmetrical 10 Gbps XGS-PON in a lab environment as the next stage of its FTTP deployment strategy.

“We’re getting started XGS-PON,” McCammon said. “We have it in the lab and we’re starting the IT work on that system right now, and unless something changes, that’s where we’re headed after GPON for consumer and potentially for business.”