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Le 25/1/2010, 18:11
Optical Fiber in France: How it work? Free vs Orange

In France, since 2007, big network operators are installing optical fiber in big cities. This new technology allow a very high speed Internet access, and new services

Since the beginning of the fiber deployment, Orange and Free, the 2 biggest French operators, are using two different technologies to provide us with fiber-based Internet access. What are those technologies ? What are each technology pro & cons ?

Let’s explain this, with some drawings too ! ...

Optical Fiber by Orange

18 months ago, at my company’s place in Paris, we was lucky enough to be in the first place where Orange network operator put some fiber in place. We liked that big tech gap !

The guys from Orange came to install the Optical Fiber and they brought us 1 Fiber, and 2 boxes : a small Alcatel box called a GPON where we put the fiber and an ethernet cable, and the usual (and bugguy as usual) LiveBox from Orange, who make routing and nat, and allow us to use the voip phone line provided by Orange with its Internet access.

That day, I discovered the Optical Fiber "the Orange way". It means : 1 fiber per building, and a box at each fiber end. One GPON box at our side, who filter the packets we need from the one of our neighbors, and another box at the Orange side, who decrypt and split it back to individual flows to the Internet ...

the "Orange way" of doing fiber is the following:

This kind of technology, called PON, has one advantage and many drawbacks : The advantage is that you have to put only 1 fiber for each building. Just put a bunch of fiber for 1 street and 1 fiber on each building. So the cost is a little bit lower since you have less fiber to put in the streets.

There is also major drawbacks : you need to put a GPON box at each extremity of the fiber, to encrypt and decrypt the data flows. And you have to maintain those equipments. And furthermore, the biggest drawbacks is that you depend on the network operator in your building!

Indeed, as this technology is mixing the flow of many clients inside the same fiber, you cannot have many operators in the same building ! So for example, Free, Orange and FDN cannot have clients in the same building ! The operator (here Orange) who own the network have to be at both side of the fiber with active equipments and he have to allocate a virtual circuit (here certainly a 8021q vlan) for each operator.

Needless to say, this is a big advantage for Orange, and a huge drawback for the consumer ... no concurrence can be enforced or the price may be far to high !

The Optical Fiber, "The Free-way"

The other big French operator, Free, chose another way of deploying Optical Fiber in big cities: Free put 1 fiber per home. So he put 1 fiber-trunk (with many fibers) per building. It may look like it will cost more since you have to put many more fibers, but the main cost is not the fiber itself, it’s the guy who will put fibers everywhere in the streets. And this cost don’t really change when you put 1 or 1000 fibers at the same time.

Furthermore, this way of deploying fiber has many advantages : the technology you will use on each side of the fiber can be different (a fiber is only a transportation mean, you can transport whatever fiber-based technology you want inside it), the fiber is entirely dedicated to one client, so new usage that will need very high bandwidth and not "shared fiber" can be proposed. Finally, since the fiber is dedicated to 1 home, other operators can come and many operators can be present in one building.

Optical Fiber deployment, by Free, is as follow:

What about small Network Operators ?

Little and big operators in France were angry against Orange when they did that absurd technological choice, which made expensive and hard to maintain a real competition on optical fiber services.

The ARCEP, the national regulatory authority on communications, was asked to make a clear choice, and they were legitimaly worried that there will be no competition in big cities on optical fiber services.

In rural zones, even if there is fiber service one day, there will likely be only one operators on the complete backbone since it will cost a lot to put many operators. So the public force will ask one operator to do the work and open its network to competition, but on another level : at the edge of the network, not at the core like in big cities.

The answer of the ARCEP was published on December 22 2009, and it’s a huge threat sent to Orange (and I will publish it in another post soon !)