The fiber-optic revolution is at the door. Two decades of cable-running have laid the bones of a national high-speed data network. Now, an explosive drive is under way to bring the long-awaited, last-mile fiber connections to millions of businesses and homes.

Capacity Bottlenecks in the national network of optical-fiber are falling away. (Photo courtesy of Corning
Optical Fiber)

Analysts with network consulting engineers Telcordia Technologies Inc., Piscataway, N.J., expect the build-out to connect at least 33 million homes and cost $45 billion to $50 billion over the next 10 to 15 years. Already the campaign has spawned its own lingo. It is variously termed Fiber To The Premises (FTTP), Fiber To The Community (FTTC) and Fiber To The Home (FTTH). The prize is the "Triple Crown"–the consolidation of voice, high-speed data and video delivery into the business of a single provider.

Established telephone companies, the "incumbents," as they are called, are in the lead, but they are not alone. Proponents of alternate broadband delivery technologies, such as cable, city-wide wireless networks and Broadband Over Power Lines (BPL), also are battling for market share.

In a significant number of locales, the municipal governments and regional authorities such as water and sewer boards and electric and gas utilities are designing networks and running their own fiber from node to door. They want to see that their towns don’t get left behind, and they also want to capture revenue by wholeselling access to their conduit and strategically placed fiber.

The political combatants say they are building infrastructure for economic development, just as they build roads and bridges and water systems to entice business their way. They also say they are doing it because their constituents are impatient for high-speed connections.

"We’re fed up with waiting," says Roger Black, deputy director and COO of UTOPIA, the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency, a 14-municipality consortium that’s now in the first phase of construction of a $300-million FTTP rollout.

Turning the national backbone into an FTTP system involves two steps. Fiber is extended from the local communications centers down every street, past every home. Then subscribers are solicited and linked up, one by one. Verizon Communications,...